Danielle Smith is new UCP leader — and Alberta's next premier
Nearly four months after the leadership contest began, Smith emerges the victor
Danielle Smith will become Alberta's next premier after winning the United Conservative Party leadership race Thursday night.
Smith, who crossed the floor in 2014 from the Wildrose Party to Jim Prentice's Conservative Party — which eventually lost to the Alberta NDP — captured 53.8 per cent of votes on the sixth and final ballot at the BMO Centre in Calgary.
Smith will become Alberta's 19th premier, succeeding Jason Kenney in the role he held for three years.
Travis Toews, finance minister for much of the UCP's three years in power, came in second with 46.2 per cent of the vote.
The party says 82,000 mail-in and in-person votes were cast. About 124,000 members were eligible to vote.
In her speech to the hundreds of members, Smith said her victory marks the start of a new chapter in a "great Alberta story."
"It is time for Alberta to take its place as a senior partner in building a strong and unified Canada," she said to loud cheers.
"No longer will Alberta ask permission from Ottawa to be prosperous and free. We will not have our voices silenced or censored. 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-signaling prime ministers. Albertans, not Ottawa, will chart our own destiny on our terms, and will work with our fellow Canadians to build the most free and prosperous country on earth."
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After thanking her opponents in the leadership contest, Smith said it was important for UCP members to unite despite who they supported in the race to prevent the opposition NDP from winning government in the next general election.
"Now is not the time for settling old scores or rivalries," she said. "It is not the time to punish our fellow conservatives for past mistakes. That is why as premier and leader of this party, I am wiping the slate clean."
The centrepiece of Smith's campaign was the proposed Alberta Sovereignty Act, which she hopes to introduce when the legislature resumes this fall.
The bill would outline how and when the Alberta legislature would ignore federal legislation that MLAs decided was not in the province's best interests. Legal experts say the bill would not survive a constitutional challenge but Smith, in her speech, warned members about pushback.
She said "many in the Notley-Singh-Trudeau alliance" will use the sovereignty act to claim Alberta wants to separate from Canada, which she said isn't true.
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Smith said Ottawa wants to control everything to impose its agenda on Albertans and Canadians.
"This is not the way to unify a country or secure prosperity," she said. "This is a road to division and economic ruin."
"Tonight, I invite every Canadian to partner with us. Partner with Alberta."
Smith was able to best Toews and five other candidates in the contest: MLA and former culture minister Leela Aheer; former Wildrose Party leader and MLA Brian Jean; independent MLA and former UCP caucus chair Todd Loewen; MLA and former transportation and social services minister Rajan Sawhney; MLA and former children's services minister Rebecca Schulz.
Unity is the message
The vote was conducted using a preferential ballot, where members were asked to rank candidates in order of preference. If no one was able to get a majority of 50 per cent plus one, the candidate with the lowest total was dropped from the next round of balloting and their second preference votes were transferred.
Jean was dropped after placing last in the fifth ballot. He told reporters that he planned to continue as MLA in the UCP caucus.
He said the leadership vote appeared to have been conducted without any of the problems that marred the 2017 vote in which Jean was also a candidate.
"The people speak and they've spoken tonight," Jean said. "And I'm satisfied with how they speak, because that's what its all about."
Jean said Smith did a better job capitalizing on the frustration UCP members had with Ottawa through her proposed Alberta Sovereignty Act.
"A lot of people are angry," he said. "People wanted to show that anger tonight."
Schulz was dropped after placing last on the fourth ballot. She said she was a team player and wanted to work to ensure an NDP government isn't elected in 2023.
Like Jean, Schulz thinks UCP members responded to Smith's proposed tactics for dealing with Ottawa.
"Albertans have been frustrated, they wanted to see a strong stance, something different when it comes to standing up to the federal government," she said.
Smith's first order of business is meeting with members of the UCP caucus Friday morning. She also invited Todd Loewen to the meeting so he can rejoin the caucus.
Loewen was kicked out of the UCP caucus in the spring of 2021 after publicly criticizing Kenney's leadership. He has sat as an independent in the legislature since then.
Smith has indicated she wants to have a bylection as soon as possible so she can be in the legislature this fall. She said several UCP MLAs have offered to give up their seats. Smith doesn't want to run in Calgary-Elbow, the seat that was vacated after UCP MLA Doug Schweitzer stepped down at the end of August.
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The UCP called the leadership race in May following a spring leadership review that saw Kenney receive support from 51.4 per cent of members. Kenney said it was not enough support for him to carry on as leader, and pledged to resign once members chose a new one.
Internal polling leaked from some camps suggested anti-establishment candidate Smith was the front-runner, with Kenney-aligned Toews in second place.
The UCP was born in 2017 with the merger of the Progressive Conservative and Wildrose parties into a new, big-tent coalition.
With files from Mathieu Gohier and Elise von Scheel