Populist or not, Danielle Smith is another challenge to Liberal climate policy

As the newly re-elected premier of Alberta, Danielle Smith sits at the nexus of the two most powerful forces shaping contemporary politics: populism and climate change.

Smith has an emissions target. How does she expect to get there?

A woman stands at a podium
Alberta Premier Danielle Smith delivers a victory speech Monday night in Calgary. (Jocelyn Boissonneault/CBC)

As the newly re-elected premier of Alberta, Danielle Smith sits at the nexus of the two most powerful forces shaping contemporary politics: populism and climate change.

While the former may have carried Smith to the leadership of the United Conservative Party, her campaign in the general election was aimed at convincing enough Albertans that she was not the scary figure her opponents accused her of being. As my colleague Jason Markusoff wrote, Smith "turned her back on a lifetime of libertarian populism" and "largely jettisoned most of the ideas she'd campaigned on to win the UCP leadership."

But the worried voices are still hard to ignore.

Jared Wesley, a professor of political science at the University of Alberta, wrote in April that democracy was on the ballot. On Monday, Politico quoted Thomas Lukaszuk, a former Progressive Conservative MLA, warning that Smith would be "unbridled" if the UCP emerged victorious.

"If we thought she was radical now, and dismissive of any democratic norms, wait until she wins," Lukaszuk told Politico.

Naheed Nenshi, the former mayor of Calgary, endorsed NDP Leader Rachel Notley and described Smith as an "existential threat" to the province.

"I did think that the NDP platform had a slight edge. However, I think there's something deeper here. And I think a lot of Albertans are feeling the way I'm feeling, which is that this is no ordinary election. That the stakes are different, that the stakes seem higher," Nenshi told CBC Radio's Sunday Magazine this weekend.

"And what we're seeing is Danielle Smith really pushing the boundaries of acceptable political behaviour … And I realize that when we look at what's happened in places around the world, from Hungary to the United States, that silence is complicity."

Smith did not make it hard for observers to draw those comparisons. Her first act as premier was to table the Alberta Sovereignty Act. At different points during this campaign, it was determined that she had violated ethics laws in her dealings with the justice minister and once compared people who got vaccinated to the people who followed Hitler.

WATCH | Danielle Smith on what her win means for Alberta — and its relationship with Ottawa: 

Danielle Smith wins Alberta, but not without some battle scars

4 months ago
Duration 11:30
The United Conservative Party has won its second straight majority in the closest election race in Alberta's history. Premier Danielle Smith sits down with Power & Politics' David Cochrane in the wake of her election victory to discuss her diminished caucus and what she plans to do with it.

But enough Albertans were willing to look past such things.

It's possible to overstate how well Smith did on Monday night. Four years ago, Jason Kenney led the UCP to 63 seats. Smith's UCP won 49 seats. Smith very likely acted as a drag on her party's support — much as Doug Ford did when he ran as an arch-populist while leading the Progressive Conservatives to government in Ontario in 2018.

But a narrow win is still a win — and Smith did it with Conservative stalwarts such as former prime minister Stephen Harper and federal Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre publicly lined up behind her.

It's hard to know what direction Smith might take next — and Poilievre might eventually have cause to regret his endorsement. But whether Smith now reverts to her populist roots or sticks with the more moderate approach, there is at least one thing Albertans and other Canadians can count on: Smith will find reasons to fight with the federal government, likely over policies related to oil development and climate change.

Some things never change

To some extent, that would have been the case under Rachel Notley as well. Fighting with "Ottawa" is the easiest thing for any Alberta premier to do. It gets much easier to do whenever questions arise about how that premier is handling his or her own job.

But with Notley as premier, the fights might have been at least fewer in number — and would not be conducted in the shadow of the Alberta Sovereignty Act.

Of the climate policies promised or implemented by the Trudeau government, Smith's government officially objects to at least three: a proposed cap on emissions from the oil and gas sector, clean electricity standards and methane regulations. She also opposes the federal carbon tax and has criticized the Liberal government's plans to assist those who work in emissions-intensive industries. (She isn't refusing to accept the federal government's large subsidies for carbon capture, utilization and storage technologies.)

On Monday night, Smith devoted nearly a quarter of her 12-minute victory speech to the federal government.

"And finally, my fellow Albertans, we need to come together no matter how we have voted, to stand shoulder to shoulder against soon-to-be announced Ottawa policies that would significantly harm our provincial economy," she said.

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith looks down at the hand of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as he extends his hand for a handshake.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with Alberta Premier Danielle Smith as Canada's premiers meet in Ottawa on Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Trudeau might take solace from the suggestion that he could be such a unifying force for Albertans — a prime minister has no higher duty, after all, than bringing Canadians together. But Smith argues Liberal policies would increase household costs, endanger Alberta's electricity supply, eliminate jobs and lead to economic ruin.

"As premier, I cannot under any circumstances allow these contemplated federal policies to be inflicted upon Albertans," Smith said. "I simply can't and I won't." 

The immediate response from Ottawa was conciliatory. "I think she's going to see a lot of good faith on our part," Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc told reporters.

Populism can't beat climate change

The math here is not new — but it is inescapable

While national emissions were lower in 2021 than in 2005 — the baseline year for Canada's current emissions target — emissions from oil were 12.5 per cent higher in 2021 and the industry now accounts for 28 per cent of Canada's total greenhouse gas emissions. Largely because of oil and gas development, Alberta is also the highest-emitting province in Canada.

There is no longer any real debate about the fact that those emissions have to be reduced substantially over the next 27 years — Smith's own government is now nominally committed to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050. The only thing unclear is exactly how she would have Alberta reach that target — especially after she has ruled out so many of the federal proposals.

It would be expecting too much to imagine that a discussion about getting to that goal would be perfectly sublime. But it's a necessary discussion and the stakes are high — not least for the people of Alberta.

That discussion will benefit most from facts and reason and logic. It will gain nothing from populist appeals to anger and contrarianism.

AT ISSUE | Should Ottawa be worried about Danielle Smith's win in Alberta? 

Should Ottawa be worried about Danielle Smith’s win in Alberta?

4 months ago
Duration 9:53
In her victory speech, newly re-elected Premier Danielle Smith vowed to stand up against federal policies that she says undermined Alberta, including ambitious green energy plans. Should the Trudeau government be worried?


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.