The improbable political comeback of Danielle Smith

Smith did not just retire, she was forced out after one of the biggest betrayals in Canadian political history, writes political scientist Duane Bratt.

Time has not healed the wounds of the 2014 betrayal. You cannot come back from something like that

Former Wildrose Party leader Danielle Smith announced this week she is seeking the UCP nomination for Livingstone-Macleod. If she's successful, it would be an incredible political comeback, writes Duane Bratt. (Bill Graveland/The Canadian Press)

This column is an opinion by Duane Bratt, a political scientist at Mount Royal University in Calgary. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

On March 31, news broke that former Wildrose Party leader Danielle Smith was going to attempt a political comeback. She would contest the United Conservative Party (UCP) nomination in Livingstone-Macleod against incumbent MLA Roger Reid. In addition, if things do not go well for Premier Jason Kenney in his UCP leadership review, she would run for the party leadership. 

If successful, it would be an incredible political comeback. More likely, it will resemble an old sports star looking to reclaim glory, and failing miserably. Many politicians, like athletes, thrive on competition and being in the spotlight, and miss it in retirement. This is what drives the desire for a comeback.

But Smith did not just retire, like Brian Mulroney in 1976 or Stephen Harper in 1997 only to return to even greater political glory, she was forced out after one of the biggest betrayals in Canadian political history. A betrayal that punished everyone associated with it. A betrayal that is still in recent memory. A betrayal that is most strongly felt by the people she needs to support her nomination, not to mention her leadership run. A betrayal that continues to shape Alberta's political party system. 

The rise

Danielle Smith, a smart, young, telegenic former broadcaster, became leader of the Wildrose Party in October 2009. A byelection victory and subsequent defections from the governing Progressive Conservative party gave Wildrose momentum. Premier Ed Stelmach was suddenly facing a threat from the right. This was compounded by dissension in his caucus and threats of further defections to Wildrose. In January 2011, running neck and neck in polls with Smith, Stelmach resigned. 

Alison Redford replaced Ed Stelmach as PC leader and premier, but within months had to fight the 2012 election. And Smith was waiting. Wildrose's large campaign war chest allowed them to have a tour bus, professionally-done advertisements, TV time, and a paid staff. Initially the campaign went well for Smith. Wildrose took an immediate lead in the public opinion polls and maintained it through the rest of the campaign. 

The fall

Smith bungled this lead with controversies over climate change and especially the "lake of fire" episode. 

Allan Hunsperger was a Pentecostal pastor and Wildrose candidate in Edmonton. A year before the election, Hunsperger wrote in a blog post that gays and lesbians would "suffer the rest of eternity in the lake of fire, hell, a place of eternal suffering." 

When asked to condemn Hunsperger, Smith, a libertarian, defended the freedom of speech of social conservatives and refused. This kept the story in the spotlight in the last week of the campaign, allowing Redford and the PCs to win a come-from-behind election. The 2012 election defeat raised questions about Smith's political judgment.

Former Alberta premier Jim Prentice and former Wildrose Party leader Danielle Smith after speaking to media about the Wildrose Party floor crossing in 2014. Outside of the ringleaders and floor-crossers, almost everybody in Alberta felt betrayed, according to Duane Bratt. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

The victory in the 2012 election was the last high point for the Redford government. Gradually the premier, her government, and her party started to disintegrate, both in terms of public policy and individual scandals.

Once again, just like with Stelmach, Smith and Wildrose started to lead in the polls and forced Redford to resign. The PCs switched to Jim Prentice as leader and premier in summer 2014. Prentice started to gradually rebuild the PCs and in October 2014 swept four byelections in Calgary and Edmonton. This greatly demoralized Smith and set the stage for the great betrayal. 

The betrayal

In December 2014 (a week before Christmas), Smith orchestrated an unprecedented mass floor crossing of Wildrose MLAs to join the PC caucus. Never before in Canadian history, either federally or provincially, had the leader of the opposition joined the government. Smith justified her decision on the grounds that she highly respected Prentice (unlike Stelmach and Redford) and that all conservatives needed to unite to deal with Alberta's emerging fiscal challenges. 

Outside of the ringleaders and floor-crossers, almost everybody in Alberta felt betrayed. The remaining Wildrose MLAs, party officials, volunteers, donors, and supporters loudly expressed their feelings of betrayal. The PC caucus, more silently, felt betrayed by inviting into their tent their fiercest adversaries. And Albertans also felt betrayed. They found it undemocratic that the governing party would try to destroy, for partisan purposes, their political opposition. 

In retaliation, everybody lost their jobs. All of the floor-crossers, including Smith, either lost nomination battles or quit. Prentice and the PCs lost the 2015 election and, within two years, lost their party. In a stroke of irony, Wildrose, under new leader Brian Jean, won more seats in the 2015 election than Smith did in 2012.

When Wildrose and the PCs merged in 2017, negotiations were public and ratification votes in both parties had to occur. This was all a direct response to the memories of the floor crossing. 

The comeback?

Smith never really disappeared from public life. She became a talk radio host and made frequent TV appearances. She also continually apologized for the betrayal of the floor crossing. 

Smith is coming back because, like many UCP grassroots members, she has deep unhappiness with the approach of the Kenney government. In a press conference, Smith provided three large criticisms: 1) Kenney was cavalier about personal freedoms in his response to COVID-19; 2) Kenney does not understand rural Alberta and does not value MLAs; 3) Kenney is not standing up for Alberta against the Trudeau government. 

Kenney is wounded and there is an appetite among UCP grassroots members to look for a replacement. This explains growing support for Brian Jean, who was attacking Kenney well before Smith. Smith's complaints will also resonate with critics of Kenney. And there is a constituency in parts of the UCP for some of the COVID policy recommendations Smith has made over the past couple of years: natural immunity and hydroxychloroquine

But is Smith the right vessel? 

Time has not healed the wounds of the 2014 betrayal. The mass floor crossing led by the leader of the Official Opposition was not just a mistake, but a fundamental betrayal of Wildrose party and overall democratic principles. It raised serious issues of character and judgment. You cannot come back from something like that.

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Duane Bratt is a political scientist at Mount Royal University in Calgary.


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