Don't assume Danielle Smith will stop re-litigating COVID if that's what Albertans want

When the new premier despairs over COVID restrictions, she's siding with minority opinion in the province.

New premier believes firmly that COVID restrictions were awful. That's at odds with her province, poll suggest

While there's been suggestions Premier Danielle Smith will pivot off COVID issues because the public's not interested in that fight, she's been talking about it routinely in her first weeks on the job. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

EDITOR'S NOTE: CBC News and The Road Ahead commissioned this public opinion research in mid-October, starting six days after Danielle Smith won the leadership of the United Conservative Party.

As with all polls, this one is a snapshot in time. 

This opinion piece, based on its findings, is by Duane Bratt, a political scientist and academic advisor to this research project.

For all the attention paid to Danielle Smith's proposed Sovereignty Act, the real galvanizing force behind her United Conservative Party leadership was her fixation on re-litigating the COVID rules she and her base so strongly opposed.

But those are views shared by only a minority of Albertans and a slim majority of UCP supporters, according to new polling data commissioned by CBC News.

Before entering the race, Smith had promoted on her radio show COVID treatments such as hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin. She was so skeptical of vaccines that she flew to Arizona to take the Johnson & Johnson shot because it was not mRNA, and admitted that she only did so because of coercions that would have limited her ability to travel. 

During the race, Smith promised no more school masking or remote learning. Smith also pledged to change the Alberta Human Rights Act to make vaccine status a protected class.

So naturally, after she became premier she continued to want to re-litigate COVID, and she's been doing so often.

covid, Covid, COVID

In the first four weeks, she's asserted that the unvaccinated were the most discriminated-against people that she had seen in her lifetime, pledged to sideline Alberta's chief medical officer of health, publicly apologized to anyone affected by COVID rules and said she wants to pardon people who were fined or jailed for defying COVID restrictions. Last week said she would welcome as a COVID advisor Dr. Paul Alexander, the Canadian who had pushed the Trump administration to adopt herd immunity and went on conspiracy theorist Alex Jones' show to claim vaccines were a bio-weapon. 

This is not political opportunism on Smith's part. If it was, she would be saying different things now that she's premier. More than a half-year removed from COVID restrictions, the public still supports them.

Half of Albertans believed the public health measures were applied at the right pace, while 18 per cent said they were not strict enough, according to the poll by Janet Brown Opinion Research. That's 68 per cent, leaving only 30 per cent who felt they were too strict — the group Smith preaches to and whose support was enough to win her the UCP leadership.

Most politicians, when faced with a 70-30 question, would easily choose the majority. For example, former premier Ralph Klein was famous for discovering which way the parade was going and then getting in front of it.   

Janet Brown's polling data reveals even more disconnect when it comes to the convoy protests in Coutts and Ottawa, which were ostensibly about federal and provincial pandemic rules. Fifty-nine per cent of respondents said they were not sympathetic to the concerns expressed by convoy protesters, while only 37 per cent agreed with their concerns.

In fact, 54 per cent of Albertans even approved of the federal government's handling of COVID, including, remarkably, almost half of UCP supporters. Yet, Smith put Todd Loewen, a long-standing critic of COVID rules who also travelled to Ottawa as part of the convoy, in her cabinet, while others who participated in or supported the Coutts blockade remain in the UCP caucus and were just elected to the UCP board

In an interview with the Western Standard, Smith maintained that "I think the experts let us down, so I'm not interested in taking any advice from them." This sentiment from Smith is textbook populist behaviour that praises the "common sense of the common people" versus the elitist views of experts.

Opponents of COVID measures around the world have gravitated to "doing their own research" that emphasized the importance of fringe views by discredited doctors over mainstream medical professionals. In a fascinating analysis, Justin Ling showed that Danielle Smith's "own research" involved consulting obscure websites that often trafficked in conspiracy theories.

Smith's political problem is that Albertans actually have more trust in experts in October 2022 than they did prior to COVID. This is why Smith's criticism of Alberta Health Services and Dr. Deena Hinshaw has alarmed so many Albertans, including those within her own party (outside of her hardcore base).

Why is Smith offside with public opinion on COVID? It is not about trying to win an election. Her decision to re-litigate COVID is a major factor why the UCP is trailing the NDP in the poll and why her approval rating trails NDP leader Rachel Notley.

It is not because of partisanship. Sixty-one per cent of those who intend to vote for the UCP in 2023 believed that COVID restrictions were too strict, but that means that 37 per cent of UCP supporters felt that COVID restrictions were appropriate or not strict enough.

In addition, just half of UCP supporters said that the government should trust the down-to-earth thinking of ordinary people over experts. So Smith is not pursuing a wildly popular policy within her own party. Her party is internally divided. 

Premier Danielle Smith celebrates her win in a byelection in Medicine Hat. Even her own party is split when it comes to believing in COVID restrictions or the wisdom of experts. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

A better explanation for Smith's opposition to COVID restrictions and vaccines is that she firmly believes it. Her personal behaviour, radio show, newsletters, and social media posts — prior to her renewed political career — demonstrate that Smith is absolutely convinced that the experts have been misleading people about COVID.

And enough UCP members — barely more than half on the sixth ballot — agreed with her. 

The CBC News random survey of 1,200 Albertans was conducted using a hybrid method between Oct. 12 and 30, 2022, by Edmonton-based Trend Research under the direction of Janet Brown Opinion Research. The sample is representative of regional, age and gender factors. The margin of error is +/- 2.8 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. For subsets, the margin of error is larger.

The survey used a hybrid methodology that involved contacting survey respondents by telephone and giving them the option of completing the survey at that time, at another more convenient time, or receiving an email link and completing the survey online. Trend Research contacted people using a random list of numbers, consisting of half landlines and half cellphone numbers. Telephone numbers were dialed up to five times at five different times of day before another telephone number was added to the sample. The response rate among valid numbers (i.e., residential and personal) was 16.3 per cent.


Duane Bratt

Freelance contributor

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