Edmonton·Opinion

Danielle Smith: How does a divisive candidate become a unifying premier in Alberta?

From political pariah to premier — Danielle Smith's political comeback is one for the ages.

Alberta's next premier is about to find out that winning the UCP leadership was the easy part

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)

This column is an opinion from Graham Thomson, an award-winning journalist who has covered Alberta politics for more than 30 years. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

From political pariah to premier — Danielle Smith's political comeback is one for the ages.

Smith, who once called herself "unelectable" is the new leader of the United Conservative Party after winning Thursday night's leadership race. In the next few days, she will be sworn in as Alberta's new premier.

But she will be a premier with more baggage than Air Canada's lost and found.

Smith won by motivating a base of disgruntled Albertans who thought pandemic restrictions unnecessary, cheered on angry truckers' blockades, and believe Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is out to destroy the province's energy industry.

It was a campaign of anger, grievance, conspiracies and retribution — and her supporters loved it. 

She promised to fire the board of Alberta Health Services, get rid of "socialist" public servants and, most notably, introduce an Alberta Sovereignty Act that she says would allow Alberta to ignore federal laws and court decisions deemed to be un-Albertan.

The party says 82,000 mail-in and in-person votes were cast. About 124,000 members were eligible to vote.

Smith didn't win a landslide: just 42,423 votes. In second place, Travis Toews with 36,480. But it was more than enough.

Danielle Smith is the new leader of Alberta’s United Conservative Party

2 months ago
Duration 21:57
Danielle Smith will become Alberta’s 19th premier after winning the United Conservative Party’s leadership vote on Thursday night.

What Albertans will need to get their heads around is that Jason Kenney, who led the UCP to victory in 2019 with more than one million votes, has been replaced by someone whose supporters couldn't fill Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium.

And as far as she is concerned, that's enough of a mandate to invoke sweeping changes to Alberta laws and how Albertans are governed.

This race was never about winning lots of votes but winning enough votes from UCP members. 


Unlike other candidates in the race, who tried to present themselves as palatable to a wide range of Albertans, Smith focused on the same angry Albertans who helped undermine Kenney in his leadership review in May.

But Smith cannot use the same strategy to unite the deeply divided UCP or to win over Albertans, many of whom, according to public opinion polls, simply don't like her.

Her victory speech Thursday night — paper copies of which were efficiently delivered to journalists moments after her victory was announced — was a continuation of her aggressive, anti-Ottawa, anti-restrictions, anti-diplomatic campaign.

"We will not have our voices silenced or censored," said Smith. 

"We will not be told what we must put in our bodies in order that we may work or travel. We will not have our resources landlocked or our energy phased out of existence by virtue-signalling prime ministers."

Smith doesn't seem ready to pivot away from her most controversial ideas, but she knows she'll have to tone down the rhetoric.

"Albertans will no longer tolerate infighting and disunity," said Smith.

But then, as someone whose default setting seems stuck on attack mode, she lashed out again: "They rightly expect their provincial conservative party to be competent, cooperative and unified against the constant threat posed on our economy by the NDP-Liberal coalition in Ottawa."

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

Smith's speech reads like something from Kenney's 2019 election campaign, where the province's ills are the fault of political enemies out to screw with Alberta. 

The only difference is that this is Kenney's sense of victimhood on steroids.

"It is safe to say that many in the Notley-Singh-Trudeau alliance will claim that my plan to stand up to Ottawa with the sovereignty act is somehow meant to move Alberta toward leaving our beloved Canada," said Smith. 

"This is a lie."

Yes, but it's also a lie to say there's a Notley-Singh-Trudeau alliance out to destroy Alberta.

To Canadians who might, rightly, think Alberta's new premier is out to rip apart Confederation, she offered an olive branch.

"I invite every Canadian to partner with us, partner with Alberta. Let's partner together to build the strong, prosperous and unified Canada we know we can be."

First, though, Smith will have to unify her fractured party.

She made a point of praising the other candidates. However, second-place Toews — who repeatedly slammed Smith's sovereignty act as unconstitutional — has yet to say if he will stay on under a government led by Premier Smith.

Smith might be about to find out that winning the UCP leadership was the easy part.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Graham Thomson

Freelance contributor

Graham Thomson is an award-winning journalist who has covered Alberta politics for more than 30 years, much of it as an outspoken columnist for the Edmonton Journal. Nowadays you can find his thoughts and analysis on provincial politics Fridays at cbc.ca/edmonton, on CBC Edmonton Television News, during Radio Active on CBC Radio One (93.9FM/740AM) and on Twitter at @gthomsonink.

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