Danielle Smith is the new leader of Alberta’s United Conservative Party and Premier-elect. Smith will be officially sworn in as Premier at a ceremony in Edmonton on Tuesday.
Smith won the UCP Leadership race with 53.77% percent of the vote on sixth ballot. The former Wildrose leader turned Progressive Conservative MLA emerged from a crowded field of seven candidates including former cabinet ministers Travis Toews, Rebecca Schulz, Rajan Sawhney, and Leela Aheer, independent MLA Todd Loewen, and UCP co-founder and former Wildrose leader Brian Jean.
The race to replace outgoing Premier Jason Kenney was initiated when he announced he would resign after receiving the support of just 51.4% of party members during a leadership review in May.
Smith’s victory speech focused on the importance of coming together as a united party. She thanked each of her fellow candidates, spoke about learning from past mistakes and leading with humility, while assuring party supporters that she is ready to move forward to defeat the New Democratic Party in the upcoming election and take on the Trudeau Liberals to get a fair deal for Alberta.
Smith’s triumphant return to politics may have appeared unlikely just a few months ago. She first rose to political prominence in Alberta after she was elected Wildrose Party leader in 2009. The upstart populist party created a major fissure in the province’s traditional governing conservative coalition by giving voice to voters in Calgary and rural Alberta concerned with government spending, energy policy, and property rights.
Smith switched parties after five years as Wildrose leader, joining the governing Progressive Conservatives under Premier Jim Prentice in December 2014 along with several of her caucus colleagues. Albertans bristled at the floor crossing and Smith failed to win her own PC nomination in the riding of Highwood just a few months later. The NDP went on to win a majority government in the 2015 election.
Between her first tenure as MLA and this evening’s result, Smith spent several years hosting a popular radio show where she built a considerable audience before eventually moving on to focus on her own independent media pursuits plus a brief stint as President of the Alberta Enterprise Group.
Smith’s victory was due in large part to down-ballot support from Todd Loewen and Brian Jean which pushed her over the 50% threshold. A win on the sixth ballot means she will have some work to do to earn the support of the six unsuccessful leadership contestants, and bring caucus and party members who remain loyal to outgoing Premier Jason Kenney back into the fold.
While tonight’s outcome may surprise some onlookers, polling and opinion research conducted throughout the campaign consistently indicated strong support for Smith among party members. Smith’s membership sales combined with her commitments to stand up to Ottawa and protect Albertans’ freedoms on public health issues positioned her as the presumed front-runner early in the race and proved to be critical factors in her victory.
Smith’s proposed Alberta Sovereignty Act was a central feature of her campaign and emerged as the ballot question in this leadership race, both for its appeal to United Conservative Party members and its use as a wedge issue to differentiate her from other candidates. The bill would provide legislative authority for MLAs to push back against federal government policies that encroach on Alberta’s jurisdiction. Smith has committed to working with caucus to design a bill they can support, although several leadership candidates have stated they would not support the Act. A self-described ‘policy wonk,’ Smith is expected to work closely with constitutional experts to avoid missteps when drafting this piece of legislation.
Smith has pledged to personally table the Sovereignty Act in the legislature but does not currently hold a seat in the assembly. She has already ruled out a run in Calgary-Elbow, the seat left vacant by former MLA Doug Schweitzer, meaning we can expect another by-election elsewhere in Alberta. Michaela Frey in Brooks-Medicine Hat and Richard Gotfried in Calgary-Fish Creek have both indicated they will not run in the next election. Brooks-Medicine Hat which is a rural constituency and safe seat for the UCP, may be Smith’s best bet from an electability standpoint, provided Frey does not complete her term.
The legislature is set to resume on October 31, but with by-elections looming it is safe to say that session will be delayed into November with a new cabinet likely to be appointed before then. MLAs are expected to return to the legislative assembly for a brief session later this fall, where the much-discussed Sovereignty Act will be at the top of government’s agenda.