Calgary·Analysis

Now the Danielle Smith Show reckons with a new audience: the Alberta public

The incoming premier has been focused on winning over the United Conservative base and wooing those who loathed COVID rules. The general public likely has other concerns.

She's won over the UCP base. Let's see how the incoming premier brings the rest of the province along

Danielle Smith celebrates after being chosen as the new leader of the United Conservative Party and next Alberta premier in Calgary, on Thursday. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Judging by the first thing Danielle Smith said after being crowned United Conservative Party leader, she's as struck as the rest of us are by her wild narrative journey — that great political nosedive and almost-as-turbulent rise that led her to be showered in those blue and white balloons Thursday night.

"I'm back," she ad-libbed.

The rest of her victory speech, and everything to come, will lay out what it means that Smith is back, on two fronts.

First, how she's evolved since her exit from the political spotlight with the shambolic floor-crossing eight years ago. The second is what it means now that she's back, for the first time in quite a while, talking to the broad general public.

Base lines

She's spent this five-month campaign courting what's less than a four per cent segment of Alberta's public; the United Conservative base and its new recruits, who appear far more energized by fury over COVID rules and disdain for the federal Liberals than mainstream Alberta. (And who are tenuously united — Smith's 54 per cent to Travis Toews' 46 per cent on the sixth ballot is no mega-mandate from those grassroots.)

But she'd dwelled in that echo chamber for longer than this contest. She'd left commercial talk radio in early 2021 for the express purpose of being freer to host doctors and others whose pandemic views were branded as dangerous misinformation by public health leaders.

Smith became a key voice for the "freedom movement" of the unvaccinated, science-skeptical and others hotly distrusting of the medical establishment and its virus-fighting restrictions.

She then carried forward that mantle into the leadership campaign, pledging at its outset to publicly apologize as premier for the Kenney-led UCP's prosecution of rule-flouting business owners and pastors; and throughout the campaign, she promised to include the unvaccinated as a class protected from discrimination under the Alberta Human Rights Act.

A Calgary protest against COVID policies and vaccines in September 2021. Danielle Smith has given voice and platform to medical figures that public health leaders and experts have warned peddle misinformation. (Nancy Walters/CBC)

Poking these frustration points and stressing this skepticism and doubt may have worked wonders among the UCP base Smith helped build. But as society more fully unmasks and few corners of anyone's lives are touched by vaccination rules any longer, what does the general public care about any of this now?

The Smith campaign seemed to appreciate the potential gulf between base sentiment and general sentiment with her 2,700-word-long speech, by reserving one line to this COVID grievance: "We will not be told what we must put in our bodies in order that we may work or travel." Just one line, but darned if it wasn't the line that generated the most passionate cheers from the conservatives in Thursday's crowd.

Far more of Smith's pitch to Albertans and the tenuously-United Conservatives concerned her other big vote-getter, Alberta's fight for autonomy from the federal government. Albertans have traditionally liked this Ottawa-fighting spirit from their provincial leaders, but their appetites for slugfests will likely be tested by her zeal to create Alberta's own tax collection agency, pension fund and police force, and Smith's promised Sovereignty Act to somehow exempt the province from certain federal laws.

Rob Anderson, the Smith campaign chair who will serve as her top premier's office aide, said in an interview that her "sovereignty" legislation won't empower Alberta to disregard Supreme Court rulings — which confirms that it won't be quite as combative or constitutionally-defiant as the Free Alberta Strategy that inspired her plan, and which Anderson co-wrote.

"But don't for a second confuse that with meaning that the final version of the Sovereignty Act won't have a whole head of very sharp teeth," Anderson said. "It will be very meaningful, and it will change the dynamic [with Ottawa]."

Danielle Smith held her first caucus meeting Friday morning, having just won the UCP leadership race the night before. (Kory Siegers/CBC)

On the subject of audiences, there are certainly internal ones Smith must cater to as well, in the shaky UCP coalition, from a party base that will demand the tough action it was promised — and which they felt Kenney under-delivered — and a government caucus that, mere weeks ago, seemed thick with MLAs who were determined to reject any constitutionally-dubious legislation the next premier tabled.

They emerged Friday after a Smith-led caucus meeting as a happy bunch, many willing to be open-minded to how their new boss steers the ship.

Pitch it like Poilievre

She didn't get nearly the size of victory that federal Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre received, though her triumphant speech seemed to lift several lines about the bite of inflation directly from his winning rhetoric: the young university grad living in mom's basement, the single mom strained by the cost of feeding kids, the senior on fixed income. She even pinpointed the same source of blame for inflation — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

While all Poilievre can ultimately do is criticize and propose alternatives to his government rival, Smith will soon have the power levers of the provincial government and its treasury at her disposal.

And she does seem to have an eye on the province's ample surpluses. Smith has signalled plans to spend more on educational aids and supports for students struggling after the pandemic's disruptions; increase rates of seniors' and disability benefits to buffer them from inflation, and (labour shortages be damned) mandate Alberta Health Services to double hospital intensive care capacity and "give them the resources to do so."

Fiscal hawkishness may have defined Smith in her days as a Wildrose leader, columnist and broadcaster, but with the province now flush she seems primarily keen to spend more to deal with issues of schools, the health care system and the cost of living. 

There's some distance to cover as she shifts from talking with the UCP members to dealing with the whole province. It may turn out that Smith's bridge from there to here is paved with oil riches.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jason Markusoff

Opinion and Analysis Producer, CBC Calgary

Jason Markusoff analyzes what's happening — and what isn't happening, but probably should be — in Calgary and sometimes farther afield. He's written in Alberta for nearly two decades with Maclean's magazine, the Calgary Herald and Edmonton Journal. He appears regularly on Power and Politics' Power Panel and various other CBC current affairs shows. Reach him at jason.markusoff@cbc.ca

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