Listen: StrategyCorp Vice Presidents Garry Keller and Elan Harper discuss the implications of the election on Intended Consequences.
Alberta’s political scene received a shake-up tonight with the election of Danielle Smith as Leader of the United Conservative Party and Premier Designate, replacing outgoing Premier Jason Kenney. Smith defeated six other candidates, including former Finance Minister Travis Toews and former Opposition leader Brian Jean. Smith won on a sixth ballot, defeating Toews 53.8% to 46.2%.
It is expected that Smith will be offered a safe rural riding for a by-election. She will then lead the UCP into the next general election, facing NDP Leader Rachel Notley on Alberta’s fixed election date of May 29th, 2023.
How We Got Here: “DCP” (Divided Conservative Party)
The UCP coalition was holding together until the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Even though Alberta had some of the lightest restrictions in the country, Premier Jason Kenney’s pandemic response and related restrictions did not sit well with many in the party who thought the restrictions represented government overreach, were completely unwarranted, and a direct violation of their individual freedoms. Due to these factors, deep divisions emerged between the UCP’s membership “base” and small “c” conservative voters.
Additionally, the rural-urban split which has simmered below the surface following the amalgamation of the Wild Rose and PC parties rose to the surface during COVID, pitting rural and urban UCP MLAs and members against each other over lockdown measures.
It wasn’t just COVID that caused division in the party, there were other divides within the UCP caucus regarding Kenney’s caucus management style, his over-reliance on a small group of Ministers and key staff, and a perception that Kenney had backed away from some of the fights he had promised to have with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the federal Liberals. These troubles may have been surmountable outside of the pandemic context but were hard to overcome when Alberta imposed many of the same restrictions as other partners in the federation.
This internal grumbling quickly turned into a tsunami of discontent amongst party members, to the point where Kenney promised a leadership review in the spring of 2022. Up until the end, Kenney expected that party members would support his leadership. However, on May 18, 2022, when Kenney received only 51.4% support from party members, he immediately resigned as Leader and Premier, sparking today’s leadership contest.
Who Is Danielle Smith?
Smith has served as a Calgary school board trustee, editorial writer and talk radio host, and provincial Opposition Leader of the Wildrose Party from 2012-14. She left politics in 2015 after crossing the floor to join Progressive Conservative Premier Jim Prentice’s caucus and then lost the PC nomination for her riding. A similar fate awaited all the other Wildrose/PC floor crossers.
Smith returned to the talk radio circuit and during COVID made headlines for promoting questionable treatment therapies. She quit talk radio in 2021 suggesting that “political correctness” had made it impossible for her to continue doing her job.
“Alberta Sovereignty Act”?
After Kenney announced his departure in May, Smith was quick to announce her intent to succeed him as UCP Leader and Premier. Her entry into the race and her early popularity came as a surprise to many, given her past political track record.
Early in the campaign, she separated herself from the pack by announcing her intention to bring forward an “Alberta Sovereignty Act” if she won the leadership thus causing the leadership campaign to be a response to her plans, rather than the platforms or policies of her opponents.
According to Smith, her Act would affirm the authority of the legislature to refuse provincial enforcement of specific federal laws or policies “that violate the jurisdictional rights of Alberta” under the Constitution of Canada or the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This would be done after identifying the federal law or policy in question through a free vote in the Alberta Legislature.
Many constitutional scholars, some business leaders, and Jason Kenney himself, have suggested that the proposed Act is unconstitutional, but many UCP members like the confrontational nature of this stance against the federal Liberal government. Regardless of constitutionality, some UCP members want to see their Leader “stand up to Ottawa.”
Expect Smith to move quickly to appoint a Cabinet, many of whom will likely be holdovers from the current Kenney Cabinet. Plan for a short legislative session this fall for Premier Smith to introduce and pass her Alberta Sovereignty Act, and then adjourn to begin campaigning. We expect the Legislature will return for a short spring session in advance of an epic political battle between Danielle Smith and NDP leader Rachel Notley.