Danielle Smith returning to politics with sights on UCP leadership

Danielle Smith, former leader of the Wildrose Party, has confirmed she'll be stepping forward for the UCP nomination for Livingstone-Macleod and could even seek the party's leadership.

Former Wildrose Party leader running for UCP Livingstone-Macleod nomination

Former Wildrose Party Leader Danielle Smith is seeking the UCP nomination for Livingstone-Macleod. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

Danielle Smith formally declared her bid to return to Alberta politics Friday, an announcement that included an apology for her ill-fated decision to lead a defection of Wildrose Party MLAs to the governing Progressive Conservatives in 2014.

"What I learned from that experience is that even though I had a very large role in building up the Wildrose Party, a party does not belong to its leader — a party belongs to its members," Smith told a virtual media conference.

"I've apologized for it. I continue to apologize for it. It was a big mistake, but I think the fact that I've learned from it makes me even stronger to be able to put my name forward again and to represent this riding in Livingstone-Macleod." 

Smith, former leader of the Wildrose Party, is running for the United Conservative Party nomination in the southern Alberta riding of Livingstone-Macleod. She also spoke of her interest in the UCP leadership.

Premier Jason Kenney's hold on the party will be determined later this month in a leadership review by mail-in ballot. 

"If the members vote that they want to go to a leadership contest, just want to be clear ... I will put my name in on that," Smith said. "I would be quite delighted to be able to represent the people of this province in that capacity. But to me, it's up to members."

Smith also took the opportunity to level criticism at changes to how the UCP's leadership review will be conducted, switching to a mail-in ballot and cancelling its April 9 general meeting.

Premier Jason Kenney spoke about a pause in collecting provincial fuel taxes while at a press conference held at a Co-op gas station in Calgary on Friday. He was also asked about Danielle Smith's return to politics. (CBC News)

"I can tell you from personal experience, it is fraught with problems," she said, referring to the Wildrose Party's use of mail-in ballots in 2009.

"If the purpose of the leadership vote is to ensure the mandate for the current leader, the premier, then having a process that is beyond reproach, that people can trust and accept the outcome of, should be the No. 1 goal."

Kenney was asked by reporters about Smith's announcement on Friday.

He didn't refer to her by name, but instead referenced the Wildrose Party's failure to win election in 2012. A key turning point during that campaign was the emergence of an anti-gay blog written by a Wildrose candidate.

"As long as I'm leader of the United Conservative Party, I will not permit a rerun of the 'lake of fire' incident," he said. 

He said a "conservative party" was blown out in that election "because of a failure of leadership to block extremists from getting on the party ballot, that is a lesson I thought people would have learned."

Smith was leader of the Wildrose Party at that time.

Regardless, Smith's return is making waves in Alberta politics this week.

The former Official Opposition leader left the Wildrose Party in 2014 when she crossed the floor to join Jim Prentice's ruling Progressive Conservatives. She brought with her eight members of the Wildrose Party.

At the time, she defended her decision, saying "to me, it's declaring victory and uniting conservatives under the leadership of one person so that we can deal with some very significant challenges ahead."

Duane Bratt, a political scientist at Mount Royal University, said he was surprised by published comments from Smith saying that she was running now because she is upset the party changed the leadership review vote to a mail-in ballot.

"There seemed to be a suggestion that Kenney was betraying the grassroots of the party," he said.

"For her to criticize Jason Kenney for not listening to the grassroots is the height of hypocrisy." 

In 2015, Smith left politics after she lost her bid for the Progressive Conservative nomination in her riding of Highwood, to Carrie Fischer, who was on Okotoks' town council.

That same night, Brian Jean was elected as the new leader of the Wildrose Party.

Now, years later, both have expressed interest in becoming the leader of the UCP.

"To see two former Wildrose leaders running against Kenney, you know, it just sort of further emphasizes just what a big split there is between those traditional PC voters and the traditional Wildrose voters," said political commentator and pollster Janet Brown on CBC Calgary News at 6.

Since taking a break from politics, the former journalist has hosted a daily talk show on Corus Radio, which she left in January 2021, and written a number of columns.

Smith is currently the president of the Alberta Enterprise Group. 

With files from Audrey Neveu and Elissa Carpenter