Danielle Smith in UCP-land: between a rock and a hard place | Catch My Job


When Jason Kenney glued the two parties together into the United Conservatives of Alberta, blue truck mythology and all, many longtime Progressive Conservatives bemoaned what they saw as a Wildrose takeover.

Five years later, the faithful were unequivocal: last weekend at the UCP annual meeting, they attended, for all intents and purposes, a Wildrose convention. Even to some old Wildrose hands preoccupied with UCP government operations, this felt very familiar, like the pre-merger days.

Suits and shirts seemed to have largely overtaken windbreakers over plaids. Most of the participants were not there for networking and open bars in hotel suites, but for internal party processes. And the longest-serving former leader of the Wildrose, notorious for leaving his flockrestored to the throne: Prime Minister Danielle Smith.

Her UCP leadership win earlier in October was supposed to mark a shift for Smith, from her long talk deep within Alberta’s conservative community — mostly about those damn vaccines and COVID rules — to confronting the broader wants and needs of diverse — confident the whole province.

In fact, Smith has spent almost all of her first two weeks since being sworn in as Prime Minister low-key and tending to her internal UCP audience. She has not made any policy changes or other initiatives, which contrasts with the recent trend of new prime ministers making initial moves to show action and determination.

Department of Internal Affairs

They may come, some maybe this week. But in the first moments of her premiership, she quietly organized herself, learned the ropes and retreated with her club for three days teamwork — perhaps reasonable given the varied habits of MLAs, but there is a whole population that also wants to meet and greet the prime minister.

Then, immediately after revealing her cabinet, she sequestered herself back to UCP country for three days, for an entertainment convention at the Enoch Cree Nation’s casino resort.

But there’s a clear understanding from Smith’s team that, more than ever, the rest of Alberta is watching, too — even as she sits in a conference room surrounded by 2,000 friends and well-wishers.

That’s why Smith, in her convention speech, emphasized affordability and inflation relief, such as upcoming announcements to lower electricity costs and possibly cut fuel taxes. And not a word in the speech that reminded of Kenya’s COVID policy, even if her line about vaccines got her biggest applause on the night of the leader’s victory.

It’s clearly an issue that still animates her base, as evidenced later that Saturday afternoon, when members debated a policy resolution to protect individuals’ “health choices” (read: the right to refuse vaccines and not face consequences). When a woman stepped up to the debate microphone and argued that “certain choices, such as vaccination, can affect the wider society,” UCP representatives booed her rudely — so much so that the moderator asked the crowd to show civility.

Members of the United Conservatives watch Prime Minister Danielle Smith’s speech at their annual convention. She may not have mentioned the pandemic, but resentment over vaccine restrictions and rules remains a hot topic for many party activists. (Jason Markusoff/CBC)

Difficult memories of COVID can also fuel a leader’s passion, even if speechwriters kept her quiet on that front in the convention’s main hall. At the press conference immediately afterwards, she playfully accepted Asked by a Rebel News reporter about apologizing for Alberta’s enforcement of COVID rules, she said on the spot that she was “deeply sorry.”

She also expressed interest in getting public health advice from “more people,” with particular concern for “doctors who haven’t followed the narrative” — and reaffirmed that she wants to find a way, if legal, to pardon or amnesty those who have been prosecuted or have been prosecuted for violating public health laws.

Sometimes this balance between entertainment and publicity will involve Smith saying different things to different people. In an interview with the highly conservative Western Standard, the premier indicated that Alberta’s health services have some partnership with the World Economic Forum (a nefarious right-wing social media group). “It has to stop,” Smith said.

Still, when reporters asked him the next day, she tried to sound crazy. When pressed, she accused the journalists that it is just part of the “entertainment industry” as it used to be, hungry for clicks and attention.

(Let’s turn to Kenny’s common refrain when he didn’t like the reporter’s questions, Smith rejected the premise of her interrogators. Although it is fodder for the conservative base whose leaders, from Donald Trump on down, have encouraged distrust of the establishment media.)

Base booster

This weekend signaled that Smith was caught between a rock and a hard place. For all her talk about affordability and health care wait times, the lone standing ovation her speech drew was for her constitutionally dubious but exuberant idea, the Alberta Sovereignty Act.

Smith spent a long section near the top of her speech talking about her intentions to better support Ukrainian refugees since the Russian invasion, possibly further redemption after apologizing for her comments earlier this year that echoed Russian propaganda lines. Although the audience at the UCP convention ended up applauding her words, there was a lot of shifting of seats, murmurs and questioning looks; and the same online forums that have taken it over before were damaged about her apology to the “awakened” mob.

She does not appear to be someone who opportunistically pulls a favor from populist elements; she has expressed skepticism about vaccines and actually quit her previous radio job due to pressures to stick to the “narrative” long before she tackled this year’s return to politics.

“My friends, I did not campaign saying things to win your favor and your votes only to change the channel on you later,” Smith told his crowd Saturday.

Behind this is both principle and pragmatism. Although she nods to appeals beyond them, she routinely expresses fear of the rise of a right-wing splinter faction.

This is a group he wants to stay active, continue to fight with and not turn on as they did to Kenny when the pandemic showed that he was not as staunchly libertarian as many may have believed.

Members of the United Conservatives stood in line for 90 minutes or more to vote for the party’s governing board, an election that usually generates minimal interest from delegates. But this time, the group Take Back Alberta enlisted hundreds of newcomers to select its slate of activists. (Jason Markusoff/CBC)

And this weekend, the crew that played a major role in the UCP that ousted Kenny raided the party establishment. Take Back Alberta, a grassroots group rallying around hatred of the COVID rules, enlisted several hundred political newcomers to register for this AGM — even helping some pay the $350 entry fee — to select a coveted pool of party board candidates.

They elected nine out of nine, almost an electoral majority of the rebels. (That easily trumped others in the party, since these elections are typically sleepy sidebar events at the convention and don’t generate the 90-minute lines that newcomers eagerly endured and longtime members were more likely to avoid.)

And the group’s followers intend to carry the same fervor at the riding level, to rush and elect new UCP electoral candidates and perhaps overturn some existing ones elected while Kenny was in charge.

Would this be further evidence of a Wildrose-over-PC takeover? Vincent Byfield, a Take Back organizer and now a UCP board director, told the CBC it was more like a “freedom faction” in relation to Kenneit.

Watch this space, as Smith’s last bid to lead the party was littered with problematic candidates that she failed to rein in; but how much restraint will this freedom-loving grassroots group tolerate?

The Takebackers counted Smith as one of their “freedom” fighters, and when she toured the party suites this weekend, she made sure to visit theirs, too. Their passionate passions for the COVID rules may not be shared by the Albertan majority, but they form a critical mass within the party that the premier has morphed into her own.


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