Danielle Smith’s United Conservative election victory earlier this month marked a remarkable resurrection of a political career once thought dead and buried.
Smith last made major headlines in Alberta politics during Premier Jim Prentice’s term when as Wildrose and official opposition leader she was joined with the majority of her caucus and crossed the floor to the governing Progressive Conservatives.
After Albertans rejected that move in the 2015 Spring election, Smith spent her time in the political wilderness reconnecting with Albertans through her popular morning radio show that sounded across the airwaves through Calgary and Southern Alberta.
As Jason Kenney was teetering in popularity with his own party base, Smith had stepped away from her radio show and was rebuilding her political brand, marching against the establishment on government COVID policies and the province’s lack of progress in gaining wins against the Justin Trudeau-led federal Liberals.
During that time in the background, she was selling memberships and when she re-emerged from the proverbial desert, she had her finger on the pulse of where a winning coalition existed within the fractured United Conservative coalition.
Smith ran a campaign that gave the voters what they wanted: more freedom, more accountability, and more bite in the fight against Ottawa. While other candidates were still drawing up their policy books, she had hit the ground running with her campaign-defining Alberta Sovereignty Act – a policy with a lot of critics, but a lot of supporters in Alberta’s conservative heartland.
While other candidates were creating policy platforms targeting the general electorate, Smith never lost sight of her target voters of card-carrying conservative members who lifted her up past any misgivings conservatives may have had about her past record in public life.
Of the 124,000 members who had bought a membership before the Aug. 12 deadline, about 85,000 cast a ballot – about 68% voter turnout. It took 6 rounds to crown a winner with Brian Jean’s second-place ballots (and the final countable ballot) giving Smith 53.77%.
It is fair to say that Smith rode a similar wave that saw now Conservative Party leader Pierre Poilievre win the leadership in September, on the first ballot, with 68%. But unlike Pierre, the spoils of this particular victory are much more lucrative, and she will have to adapt quickly to becoming Alberta’s Premier. It is worth noting that her final ballot victory means that she does not enter the premier’s chair with a commanding grip on party unity. Some olive branches will need to be extended and members of the leadership team down to caucus will need to put their best foot forward for unity if the party is going to march toward the next election avoiding the type of infighting which has plagued it during the past two years of now former Premier Jason Kenney’s leadership.
So, with all that mess of campaigning cleared up, what’s job number one for a Smith-led government?
For her team, there is nothing more important than getting her a seat in the legislature so she can see through her core campaign commitments like the Alberta Sovereignty Act from inside the legislative assembly. The act was hotly contested during the leadership campaign, with accusations that it would lead to a crisis in investor confidence. It is a criticism Smith, and her team will need to keep a close eye on as Rachel Notley and the NDP will be desperate to have any type of edge on the economy – an issue that has been a historical weakness for them with voters. We expect to see a version of the act that will be palatable to her caucus and its implementation to be used with proportion.
With former MLA Michaela Frey resigning her seat in Brooks – Medicine Hat, Smith has thrown her hat in to be the next MLA for the region. Smith herself lives in High River and has openly stated in the past, her intention to run in the rural riding of Livingston-Macleod.
Smith’s public life has shown she’s a policy wonk not afraid of testing and putting out big ideas. This has gotten her in trouble in the past by pushing out trial balloons. Danielle will need to temper this historic impulse and remember she is in the premier’s chair and no longer doing talk-show radio. Nevertheless, over the next several months Albertans should expect a premier who has read all her briefings and is well-informed on what the government is up to.
Smith’s redemption story is not yet over. It is only the beginning of the final act. A general campaign victory was elusive to her in 2012 when she and the Wildrose party led the election in the polls right up to election day when Alison Redford and the Progressive Conservatives came roaring back for the win.
Defeating the NDP in 2023 will be no small task. Rachel Notley and her NDP team in opposition are the most formidable and well-positioned opposition provincial party in the country. They have raised enough money to run more than one provincial election and have funds still saved in their coffers. They have a dominant lead in Edmonton and polls show them tied in Calgary. As they did in the last election, they will be trying to claim that they are the true inheritor of the legacy of Peter Lougheed “centrism” and be doing all they can to dull their edges on the economy and create distance with their federal allies in the NDP and Liberals.
Smith has shown that she is ready to fight. It is now Albertans who will have the final say on Smith’s story when they mark their ballots in May 2023, one that we will all be watching closely.
During her political exile, Smith has most certainly had time to reflect on some of the themes that led to chaos during her final days of Wildrose and observe the missteps that other Alberta leaders like Rachel Notley and Jason Kenney made before their exits as premier.
Smith’s Transition Team
Rob Anderson – Transition Team Chair and Executive Director of Premier’s Office
Marshall Smith – Chief of Staff
Peter Guthrie, MLA for Airdrie-Cochrane – Caucus Liaison
Erika Barootes – Principal Secretary
Chief Billy Morin – Special Advisor on Indigenous Relations
Jamie Mozeson – Executive Director of Government Strategy
Jonah Mozeson – Executive Director of Communications
Matt Solberg – Executive Director of Caucus