Alberta's post-truth election? Why trust may not matter anymore

Accused by her opponent of breaking the law, Danielle Smith looked squarely into the camera in last week’s provincial leaders’ debate and told Albertans the ethics commissioner’s findings “confirmed that I did not direct or interfere in any COVID related cases.” 

Vote Compass data suggests UCP's Danielle Smith is seen as much less trustworthy than NDP's Rachel Notley

In images taken from attack ad videos, NDP Leader Rachel Notley is in sepia, and UCP Leader Danielle Smith is in stark black and white on a blue background.
Left, an image of NDP Leader Rachel Notley used in a UCP attack ad and right, how the NDP depicts Danielle Smith. (@unitedconservatives/YouTube; @cantafforducp/YouTube)

Accused by her opponent of breaking the law, Danielle Smith looked squarely into the camera in last week's provincial leaders' debate and told Albertans the ethics commissioner's findings "confirmed that I did not direct or interfere in any COVID related cases." 

Smith's exchange with NDP Leader Rachel Notley came just hours after a damaging report from Alberta's ethics watchdog concluded that "Smith contravened [section three] of the Conflicts of Interests Act in her interaction with the minister of justice and attorney general in relation to the criminal charges" faced by Calgary street preacher Artur Pawlowski for urging truckers to continue to block the Canada-U.S. border crossing near Coutts, Alta., in February 2022. 

Historically, before the current era of post-shame politics, lawmakers got in trouble for running afoul of the law and ethics rules. Recent public opinion polls, however, suggest Smith appears poised to win next week's election. Political scandals don't appear to exact the same political price anymore in our modern, post-truth politics where partisans increasingly overlook their leaders' once fatal transgressions. 

"Partisanship is a hell of a drug," says Feodor Snagovsky, an assistant professor with the University of Alberta's political science department who studies identity politics in Canada. 

The effect of partisanship is evident in Alberta voters' evaluations of both Smith and Notley's trustworthiness, according to 45,616 respondents who participated in CBC News' Vote Compass from April 30 to May 23.

Notley seen as more trustworthy: Vote Compass

On average, users of CBC News' online civic engagement tool do not find Smith all that trustworthy.

On a score out of 10, Smith only averaged 2.3 amongst people who responded to CBC News' online civic engagement application developed by political scientists. 

Notley's 5.4 out of 10 average score for trustworthiness doubles Smith's rating, in fact.

While NDP supporters, not surprisingly, gave Notley a 7.6 out of 10, UCP supporters surveyed by Vote Compass scored Smith lower — 5.8 out of 10 on average. 

Notably, United Conservative Party supporters gave Notley 1.9 out of 10, close to the score Smith received — on average — from all Vote Compass users. 

Essentially, UCP supporters told Vote Compass they don't trust Smith all that much, but they're still going to vote for her.

Increasingly, party identification — not policy preferences or concerns about trustworthiness — matters more in politics. 

It's become "my party, no matter what" for many partisans. 

So, no surprise, the party faithful overlook their leaders' missteps, including even contravening well-established ethical guidelines that preclude politicians from interfering in the administration of justice. 

Longtime conservative voter Don Rausch questions the significance of the "so-called interference" of Smith in Calgary street preacher Artur Pawlowski's criminal case.

"I think it's a little overblown," he told CBC's West of Centre podcast host Kathleen Petty. 

"I think this happens every day. People with influence over all kinds of judges do all kinds of things. This is not an exception," added Rausch, a retired oil industry executive specializing in international business development and a member of CBC News' citizens' panel during this election.

Two women wearing blue suits stand at podiums opposite each other.
Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley, left, and UCP Leader Danielle Smith prepare for a debate in Edmonton on May 18. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Political interference in the justice system is, in fact, rare. And the ethics commissioner's conclusion that Smith contravened the Conflicts of Interests Act is unprecedented. 

"Political partisans," said Snagovsky, "see things through the lens of their own partisanship … and seeing things through the prism of your team and the way that your team conditioned you to view things is really powerful."

And politically, there appears to be a big advantage, especially for politicians on the right, to rip up the old rule book and crash through the usual guardrails that once constrained politics and government.

Many of their supporters like it and reward it. 

Group identity, grievance politics and status threat

In her much talked about 2018 book explaining polarization in U.S. politics, political scientist  Lilliana Mason illustrates how racial, religious and cultural identities have neatly aligned with political identities. 

Partisans not only work hard to dismiss information that doesn't fit with their preferred party, they also want to see their political team win at all costs. Mason's book highlights how even moderate partisans feel more compelled to beat their opposing political party in an election than see public policy they actually like become law.

In her 2019 book explaining Donald Trump's populist politics, noted political philosopher Wendy Brown argues that Trump's transgressions — sexual abuse, adultery, paying hush money to porn stars, tax avoidance — prompts cheers and chants from his supporters because his abuses of power reclaims the power they lack. Trump, by this logic, is the avatar of their grievances — and voting for him exacts a revenge on a system that betrayed them. 

These feelings of partisanship get dialed up when the status of the group gets threatened.

A bearded preacher speaks into a microphone to his supporters. A Canadian flag is behind his head.
Preacher Artur Pawlowski addresses media and supporters outside the Lethbridge Courthouse on May 2. (Ose Irete/CBC)

Like a prairie grass fire, a bonfire of resentment and anger burns at the centre of conservative politics in Alberta. Smith often stokes worries about Alberta's status in Confederation to her own advantage

The radio host turned politician frequently portrays herself as standing up for Alberta against Alberta's foes, including the federal government. 

Smith has Alberta's back — and her partisan supporters have hers. 

Post-shame politics

Conflicts of interest allegations toppled two premiers — Glen Clark and Bill Vander Zalm — in British Columbia in the 1990s. 

But the old rules, whereby shame and disgrace precipitated both of those leaders' exits from politics, don't appear to apply any longer. As the former U.S. President Donald Trump proved time and time again, the old political rules don't apply if you simply ignore them.

Trump showed no shame, even turning old television footage of him bragging about groping women that surfaced weeks before his election win in 2016 to his advantage with claims that the elite media and establishment were determined to destroy him. 

"I think [political] leaders since Donald Trump have realized that if they just sort of stay in the game, they'll be fine, that they can just keep either denying or if they just last long enough, the media will eventually pay attention to something else," said Snagovsky. 

Justin Trudeau, for instance, took responsibility but did not resign in 2019 when the federal ethics commissioner concluded that the prime minister violated the Conflict of Interest Act by trying to influence then-justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould to step in and resolve a corruption and fraud case involving the engineering firm SNC-Lavalin Group.

Danielle Smith, wearing a royal blue blazer and matching shell and a gold link necklace looks up as she speaks into the microphone in this closeup photo.
United Conservative Party Leader Danielle Smith speaks following the Alberta election leaders debate in Edmonton on May 18. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Trudeau also apologized to voters for violating federal conflict laws with his visit to the Aga Khan's island in the Bahamas. 

The old rules relied a lot on politicians policing themselves, and adhering to norms.

And shame is not legally binding.   

Look no further than the U.S. Congressman George Santos, who faces multiple criminal charges and ethics  investigations.

The freshman Republican from New York appears deaf to the loud and continuous calls for him to resign. 

Post-shame politics corrosive effect

While politicians uncomplicated by feelings of guilt appear able to weather even the nastiest of political storms, the enduring — and worrying — effect comes in the lasting stain it makes on our wider politics and the trustworthiness of all politicians.

Voters, worry some political scientists, come to distrust the entire democratic process, seeing it as rigged.

This, in turn, makes people more open to dirty politics to counter their opponents.

"It definitely creates the impression that my opponents are doing this, so I might as well do it," said Snagovsky.

But the University of Alberta political scientist stresses the worst thing that we can do is accept this cynical take on politics. 

Getting past post-shame politics

Not all UCP supporters have given Smith a pass on her contravention of Alberta' Conflicts of Interest Act. 

Former Calgary city councilor Jeromy Farkas, a conservative stalwart who placed second in Calgary's mayoral race in 2021, called Smith's claim that Alberta's ethics commissioner cleared her of wrongdoing "brazen" on CBC Radio's Calgary Eyeopener last Friday.

"It really proves why we need to speak out, to hold our own side to account," said Farkas. 

In addition to Farkas, Jim Foster, who served as PC premier Peter Lougheed's attorney general and later as a Justice of the Court of King's Bench, endorsed Rachel Notley and the NDP this week, saying he was "deeply concerned" about the ethics commissioner's findings. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is pictured in Seoul, South Korea with Canadians flags in the background.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized to voters for violating federal conflict laws with his visit to the Aga Khan's island in the Bahamas in 2017. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"If you applied the criminal code lens to [Smith's] actions, it raises the serious prospect the Premier may have broken the law by attempting to pressure the Attorney General over the prosecution of Artur Pawlowski," Foster said in a statement. "The Attorney General should have resigned after this call with the Premier occurred. An independent investigation to protect our democracy and independent justice system should be considered."

As well, Doug Griffiths — a longtime Progressive Conservative who served in Premier Ed Stelmach's government — also is voting NDP in his Fort Saskatchewan-Vegreville riding, stressing that the UCP under Smith "are conspiratorial," "feeding anger," and "anti-science, anti-truth, anti-fact."

Snagovsky encourages voters and politicians to call out norm-busting by politicians and to pay special attention to democratic ideals and the rule of law. 

"The worst thing that we can do," he says, "is to not talk about it, the worst thing we could do is just to say, well, that's just the way politics goes." 

"If you sort of throw your hands up like that, then it becomes really normalized."

How Vote Compass data is gathered and interpreted

Developed by a team of social and statistical scientists from Vox Pop Labs, Vote Compass is a civic engagement application offered in Alberta exclusively by CBC Radio-Canada. The findings in this story are based on 45,616 respondents who participated in Vote Compass from April 30 to May 23, 2023.

Unlike online opinion polls, respondents to Vote Compass are not pre-selected. Similar to opinion polls, however, the data is a non-random sample from the population and has been weighted in order to approximate a representative sample.

Vote Compass data has been weighted by gender, age, education, region and partisanship to ensure the sample's composition reflects that of the actual population of Alberta according to census data and other population estimates.


Brooks DeCillia spent 20 years reporting and producing news at CBC. These days, he’s an assistant professor with Mount Royal University’s School of Communication Studies.