What's worse than Premier Kenney calling Danielle Smith's big idea 'nuts'? Her idea

The outgoing premier isn't the right person to criticize a would-be successor's proposal, even if his message is right.

Also bad: Smith insisting nobody criticize her bill until she's already won and it's drafted

A composite image of a woman and man.
UCP leadership candidate Danielle Smith says it's inappropriate for Premier Jason Kenney to criticize her top-priority legislation, the constitutionally-questionable Alberta Sovereignty Act, before she's become premier and drafted the bill. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press, Dave Chidley/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.

Premier Jason Kenney waded into the contest to take over his job and party, by warning perceived front-runner Danielle Smith's proposed Sovereignty Act would make Alberta a "laughingstock." 

The UCP leadership candidate's bill would have trouble even becoming law, Kenney said on his weekend radio show, because it would ignore and violate the Constitution in an unprecedented way. The act's aim, in his words: "To not enforce the laws of the land, including federal laws, which include the Criminal Code, which is nuts."

Kenney amplified his critique during a Monday news conference about how to attract people from Toronto and Vancouver to move to Alberta. He juxtaposed bragging about the province's lower housing prices, shorter commutes and greater quality of life with warnings that the Sovereignty Act would make Alberta a wasteland of constitutional crisis and investor fright. I wonder what Torontonians and Vancouverites think?

Smith responded to Kenney's criticism by saying "the premier and other 'experts' should reserve their opinion on this legislation until they can actually read it first."

As a political scientist who closely studies Alberta politics, I am one of those "experts" that Smith said should refrain from commenting until she becomes premier and drafts the legislation

WATCH | Jason Kenney pans Danielle Smith's proposed sovereignty act: 

Jason Kenney slams platform of candidate vying to replace him as Alberta premier

1 year ago
Duration 2:06
Featured VideoJason Kenney is weighing in on the political battle to succeed him as Alberta’s premier, attacking the idea of an Alberta Sovereignty Act floated by one of the leading contenders. But some of his own party members are pushing back.

Smith is essentially arguing that policy promises should not be debated during a leadership campaign. This is reminiscent of Kim Campbell's gaffe during the 1993 federal campaign that an "election is no time to discuss serious issues."

Time to discuss serious issues

While this argument is obviously ludicrous, Smith's idea is even more ludicrous. The Sovereignty Act would allow Alberta to nullify federal laws, and refuse to enforce court rulings and regulatory decisions that the provincial government opposes.

It is the centrepiece of her campaign; her Day One priority. Smith has given speeches about it, her rally audiences have cheered it, she released a platform video describing it, and based it on a larger "Free Alberta Strategy" policy document a group released months earlier.

But, apparently, while she wants supporters to take the Sovereignty Act (as presented) seriously, critics must hold their fire until the fine points are formalized in a legislative bill.   

Having outside legal, constitutional, and political experts evaluate the Sovereignty Act and explaining its potential ramifications is important for UCP members to consider before they cast their votes.

There is a consensus among these experts that the Sovereignty Act is unconstitutional, would violate the rule of law, and plunge Alberta and Canada into a constitutional crisis. Based on the experience of Quebec in the 1970s, it would also lead to investor uncertainty and capital flight.  

Former MLA Rob Anderson, left, crossed the floor from the Tories to Wildrose when Danielle Smith was leader, then crossed back to the Tories alongside Smith in 2014. He's one of the brains behind her proposed Alberta Sovereignty Act. (CBC )

And it's not just critics who assert the Sovereignty Act would be unconstitutional. Some of the architects say the same thing. Rob Anderson, the former MLA and current campaign chair for Smith, has said Ottawa cannot make the Alberta government enforce decisions it does not like. "And what are they going to do? Maybe send in the army?"

Barry Cooper, a political scientist who developed the strategy with Anderson and lawyer Derek From, argued that it "would be unconstitutional! Indeed, that is the whole point."

So both advocates and critics of the Sovereignty Act agree that it is unconstitutional. Where they differ is that critics support the rule of law, and reason that if there are federal intrusions into provincial jurisdiction there are legal remedies. Advocates of the Sovereignty Act dismiss the rule of law because Trudeau and the federal Liberals are bad. 

Where Smith does have a point is criticizing Kenney for interfering in the UCP leadership race. On May 18, Kenney announced his intention to resign after getting a narrow majority in the UCP leadership review, but pledged to remain as leader and premier until a replacement was chosen.

The outgoing premier

Many "experts," including myself, warned that this was politically dangerous. Instead of the UCP caucus appointing a premier as a caretaker, a role Dave Hancock effectively played in the aftermath of Alison Redford's resignation in 2014, Kenney would remain. 

He was also adamant that he would not be a caretaker, but had an unfinished agenda that he wanted done. This meant that there was an inevitability of conflict between a sitting premier with an ongoing leadership race.

Kenney is correct in his assessment of the Sovereignty Act. This is not just a regular policy debate. If enacted, this legislation would plunge Alberta into a constitutional crisis and would be tantamount to separating from Canada.

Any premier would have an obligation to speak up. But Kenney, given that almost half of all UCP members rejected him in May and all the leadership candidates (save for Travis Toews) are running against his record, is the wrong person to speak up.

Ironically his intervention against Smith may, in fact, help her become leader, because her supporters will be further animated by their anger toward Kenney. As was said at the time, Kenney should have resigned completely in May.

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Duane Bratt

Freelance contributor

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