It took Premier Jason Kenney a couple of years and plenty of fallout from a deadly pandemic and a series of policy flops to become the most unpopular provincial politician in Alberta.
It looks like Danielle Smith may achieve that status the instant she’s declared to be the province’s unelected premier by the United Conservative Party later this week.
Ms. Smith will still need to be sworn in before we can officially call her premier, but she’ll be an unpopular and divisive figure with large swaths of the population right from the moment she’s named as Mr. Kenney’s successor.
Mr. Kenney himself has all but declared her to be a “lunatic,” along with everyone who supports her – and he’s on her side!
This, of course, assumes that the UCP will announce on Thursday that Ms. Smith was in fact the winner of the party’s leadership race. If she’s not, pretty well every political pundit in Alberta will have egg on their face.
Not that the other two leading contestants – former finance minister Travis Toews and Brian Jean, the other former Wildrose Party leader – are all that popular themselves according to an Angus Reid Institute poll published at the end of last week. A lot of Albertans think they’re all terrible, according to the poll’s assessment of the mood of the province. And that includes NDP Opposition leader Rachel Notley. It’s just that they seem to think Ms. Smith is the most terrible of them all.
A clear majority, the pollster said, 55 per cent, think Ms. Smith would be either bad or terrible for the province.
This may explain why Ms. Smith said she wouldn’t be calling a general election any time soon at a virtual news conference she held yesterday. It was the first time she’d talked to media since May, and she said it would be the last until after the ballots are tallied. Reporters were limited to two questions each.
As the Toronto Star put it cruelly but probably accurately in its headline, “If crowned Alberta premier, Danielle Smith says she won’t call an Alberta election because she might lose.”
“I think that when early election calls occur, the public is suspicious,” Ms. Smith told the reporters. “They think there’s some advantage that the person is trying to gain.”
Well, duh! That is how Parliamentary democracy tends to work. And have no doubt, dear readers, that should the polls change, Ms. Smith will change her mind about the efficacy of an early election.
Remember, Mr. Kenney said that a 51-per-cent vote in last spring’s leadership review would be good enough. In the event, he changed his mind too.
That was then, and this is now is the motto of all politicians and, count on it, Ms. Smith is no exception.
Indeed, if her polls are still disastrous closing in on May 29, 2023, you can take it as given that she will have no trouble finding an excuse to postpone the next provincial election, notwithstanding the fixed-election-date law now on the books.
Which brings us to the other election that Ms. Smith doesn’t really want to call because she might lose.
As previously noted, if chosen by UCP members as anticipated, Ms. Smith will be a premier without a seat in the House. Parliamentary tradition allows that state of affairs to exist for a spell. For her part, Ms. Smith told the reporters yesterday she wants to have a seat in the Legislature as soon as possible, so she can introduce her own Sovereignty Act.
Now, there’s a perfectly good vacated seat awaiting a by-election: Calgary-Elbow, from which former justice minister and jobs, economy and innovation minister Doug Schweitzer resigned on Aug. 31.
Why doesn’t Ms. Smith run there if she wants to be in the Legislature so badly? The answer is, for the same reason she doesn’t want to fight Ms. Notley and the NDP in a general election just now: because there’s no guarantee she would win.
Indeed, given her low approval ratings in Calgary and Calgary-Elbow’s history of cautiously electing more progressive candidates now and again, there’s a real chance she’d lose.
So Ms. Smith said she’d really rather run in a rural riding because she prefers “the dynamic of the rural riding that I am in” – that is, Livingstone-Macleod, which includes the town of High River where she resides.
That would require MLA Roger Reid to give up his seat, which he didn’t seem to want to do not so long ago. Mind you, things change when the person who wants to run in your riding is the premier.
Anyway, Ms. Smith told her news conference that several rural MLAs have said they’d give up their seats to accommodate her, in the event, I guess, that Mr. Reid proves recalcitrant.
Of course the real reason isn’t that Ms. Smith likes “the dynamic” of the rural south more than that of battleground Calgary, where the next election will be won or lost, it’s that it’s a safe bet she can win there.
So does she propose to call by-elections in two vacant ridings, one just vacated that she can win and another that might produce an embarrassing loss for the UCP?
Or does she plan to find some flimsy excuse to defy Parliamentary tradition and not call an election at the same time in Calgary-Elbow, leaving it without a representative in the Legislature for months?
The latter course would be a troubling indicator of a lack of commitment to democratic principles, but I doubt it would trouble Ms. Smith all that much.