Alberta's newly minted UCP cabinet will need to lead Premier Smith, lest there be trouble

In the U.K., a head of lettuce outlasted the reign of Conservative Prime Minister Liz Truss. Alberta Premier Danielle Smith will need to do a lot of work both internally and externally or face the grocery aisle, writes Ken Boessenkool.

Danielle Smith’s signal of political stability was to largely reappoint Jason Kenney’s cabinet

A group of people stand on steps behind a podium and microphone.
Alberta Premier Danielle Smith makes her way to a press conference through her new cabinet after members were sworn in on Monday in Edmonton. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

This column is an opinion from Ken Boessenkool, a professor at the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University and a research fellow at the C.D. Howe Institute. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

What does a head of lettuce have to do with Alberta's new cabinet? 

Well, it's a lot. Let me explain. 

Over the past few weeks in the United Kingdom, the political maelstrom surrounding Prime Minister Liz Truss reached its crescendo, culminating in the shortest premiership in a country with a recent history of political turmoil. 

The events devolved into a public competition between a head of lettuce and Truss' shaky leadership as a result of a set of radical decisions by her radical cabinet. 

The joke was which would last longer. Truss lasted just 44 days before being replaced by Rishi Sunak earlier this week. The lettuce won. 

The first 10 days of Danielle Smith's premiership in Alberta overlapped with the final 10 days of Truss. The end of Truss and the beginning of Smith felt so similar that Albertans were probably trying to decide if the right comparison was to iceberg, butterhead or romaine. 

A woman stands next to a microphone.
Alberta Premier Danielle Smith needed to demonstrate stability to counter a steady diet of clarifications and abject apologies for saying things well outside of the mainstream, says Ken Boessenkool. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

After only 10 days in office, Smith needed a reset lest she also lose to a lettuce.

Smith needed to demonstrate stability to counter a steady diet of clarifications and abject apologies for saying things well outside of the mainstream. And these apologies weren't for the indiscretions of her youth. 

They were all recent comments on current events: her views on the maltreatment of the unvaccinated and her seeming support for Russian president Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine.

And so, with very few exceptions — mostly to reward fellow leadership aspirants — Smith sought to send a signal of stability by putting almost the entire cabinet back together that existed prior to her arrival.

You heard that right. 

Given everything that Smith campaigned on to win the leadership, you have to think her supporters were expecting a cabinet featuring the staunch critic of the province's COVID-19 measures and participant in the self-described "Freedom Convoy" Todd Loewen as Minister of Health, and Finance Minister Travis Toews returned to his farm and accounting practice (Toews himself had suggested that might be his preference). 

But that was not the case. Loewen got Forestry, Parks and Tourism and Toews is back in Finance. 

Two lines of people stand in front of a desk in a well-lit room.
Many of Smith’s new ministers, sworn into cabinet in Edmonton on Monday, are reappointments of those who served under Jason Kenney. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Smith's signal of political stability was to largely reappoint the cabinet that had served under Jason Kenney. A cabinet to curb her enthusiasm.

This raises two big questions.

First, you have to wonder what her supporters within the party are feeling. 

Half of them voted to remove Kenney a few short months ago, and the other half joined since then to usher in a new era and a very different leader. 

During the leadership, Smith repeatedly apologized for her 2014 crossing of the floor to join Jim Prentice, saying she would never do such a thing again. 

Now, making Kenney's cabinet her own isn't nearly as blatant as a floor-crossing, but I can't be the only one who feels as if she has just asked the entire Kenney cabinet — including her most vociferous opponents from the leadership race — to cross some sort of floor to her.

And most said "sure!"

Which raises the second big question. Will this be a premier that is led by her cabinet? Or will this be a cabinet that is led by its premier?

This matters because the premier just can't seem to help herself. 

On the day the new cabinet was announced last week, Smith gave an interview to the right-leaning, populist Western Standard. Clearly wanting a reprieve from that disastrous press conference she gave to the entire press gallery during her salad days — by which I mean a few days prior.

Not that it helped. 

Even with her sometime political friend, former MLA and sometime Alberta separatist Derek Fildebrandt (who is now the the boss at the Western Standard), she couldn't hold to a stability script. 

She was back to her old ways of spewing conspiracy theories, anti-scientific support for health care quackery rather than vaccinations, and pretending she had the presidential power to pardon folks who committed illegal acts during the pandemic.

Then, over the weekend, came her convention speech to United Conservative Party faithful just outside Edmonton. 

A woman stands in front of a podium.
Smith spoke to the party faithful at the United Conservative Party annual general meeting near Edmonton over the weekend. (Amber Bracken/The Canadian Press)

It brought to mind rule-four of veteran Canadian columnist Paul Wells' Four Rules of Canadian Politics: "The [person] who auditions for the role of opposition leader will get the job."

Outside of the introduction of her cabinet there was barely a sentence in Smith's convention speech that didn't mention Rachel Notley, Jagmeet Singh and/or Justin Trudeau. 

Smith spent more time talking about her opponents than she did about her own plans. She sounded like a Leader of His Majesty's Loyal Opposition. She seems to be auditioning for the very job the polls suggest she is headed for.

If the cabinet is going to lead the premier, they are going to have to counter her crazy outbursts by projecting stability, and act like a government not an opposition. 

The vast majority of Albertans simply aren't interested in a war against Alberta Health Services for some real or imagined collaboration with the World Economic Forum. 

They support vaccinations and measures to protect the most vulnerable. They believe in the rule of law. And the vast majority of Albertans want a government, not an opposition.

In short, Albertans need this cabinet to lead this premier. 

If they don't, beside a single head of wilting lettuce will be 26 more.

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Ken Boessenkool is a lecturer at the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill and a Research Fellow at the CD Howe Institute. He was one of the original authors of the so-called Alberta Firewall letter in 2001. He was a senior campaign adviser to prime minister Stephen Harper, and has worked or volunteered for Preston Manning, Stockwell Day, Jim Dinning, Ric McIver and Christy Clark.

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