The race to become Alberta’s next premier may be damaging to the governing United Conservative Party’s brand, a longtime pollster says, casting doubt on how long the winner will be able to hold on to the top job.
In an interview with Mercedes Stephenson on The West Block Sunday, Janet Brown said issues like sovereignty and autonomy from Ottawa that have dominated the campaign to replace Jason Kenney are not resonating with average Albertan voters, who are focused on the rising cost of living and widening gaps in health care.
“Right now, the average Albertan is scratching their head because the race has been focused on things that aren’t all that important to your average voter,” Brown said.
“A leadership race really should elevate a party. This leadership race, I think, is probably doing some serious damage to the UCP brand.”
UCP members have been voting since late August on who should replace Kenney, who resigned as premier and party leader in May after narrowly surviving a leadership review.
The winner of the race to replace him will be announced on Thursday.
Danielle Smith — the former leader of the Wildrose party that later merged with the Progressive Conservatives to form the UCP in 2017 — has become the perceived frontrunner in the race, attracting large crowds and attention from her rivals for her proposed Alberta sovereignty act.
The act would grant the province the right to ignore federal laws and court rulings deemed harmful to its interests.
Critics, including legal scholars, say such a bill is not only illegal but will create a constitutional crisis. Kenney himself has said the act would turn the province into a “banana republic,” while a majority of UCP caucus members have also opposed the plan.
Smith has in recent weeks downplayed her proposal, labelling it a symbolic document to seek rights that provinces such as Quebec are employing. But she has stressed that she would refuse to enforce federal rules if she were to become premier, particularly in areas like COVID-19 health restrictions.
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Although it’s difficult to independently poll leadership races that rely solely on votes from party members, Brown said she has no reason to doubt Smith is poised to replace Kenney.
She said Smith smartly targeted the most impassioned voters within the UCP base early with her focus on freedom and sovereignty, while more moderate candidates failed to gain traction before membership purchases closed on Aug. 12.
Notably, both Smith and her opponents are all “behaving like Danielle Smith is the frontrunner,” she said.
Yet Brown said the true test for Smith — if she were to win — will come after Thursday, when she will have to appeal to more than just the party faithful ahead of the next provincial election, currently scheduled for next May.
Brown compared Smith to new federal Conservative Party Leader Pierre Poilievre, who won his own leadership race this month after similarly championing freedom and opposition to federal COVID-19 restrictions.
“But by the end of that campaign, he was talking about inflation — ‘Justin-flation’ — things people found more compelling,” Brown said.
“Danielle Smith hasn’t made that switch. Maybe it’s because she’s in a tighter race here in Alberta and doesn’t feel she can safely make that pivot. Or maybe she’s never going to make that pivot. That’s what we’re all waiting to see.”
Other candidates, including UCP backbencher Brian Jean and former UCP caucus member Todd Loewen, have tried to shift the focus to inflation and reining in government spending, but have failed to draw the same attention as Smith.
Smith herself noted in the final debate of the race on Aug. 30 that her opponents have adopted versions of her sovereignty act in their platforms, while also railing against COVID-19 rules and other federal laws like the carbon tax.
The continued attacks on Ottawa and promotion of Albertan autonomy could end up playing into the hands of the opposition NDP, said Brown, who predicted a majority NDP government if an election were to be held today.
She said her polling has shown inflation, health care and education far outstrip most voters’ desire for independence from federal regulations, giving the NDP an opportunity to show leadership on those issues.
“Rachel Notley (was) a controversial premier, but … in hindsight, I think Albertans are looking back at her as a steady hand,” she said.
“Right now, I think most Albertans just want to put the circus of the UCP race behind them, and they’re looking for stable government. That will be Danielle Smith’s main challenge … proving to Albertans she can provide (that stability).”
The latest Leger poll in early September, meanwhile, found the UCP had a three-point lead over the NDP in a general election matchup — but also suggested voters preferred Jean to win the UCP leadership.
Thursday’s winner will be chosen using a preferential ballot, which means lower-tier choices may come into play if the first-place finisher doesn’t capture a majority in the first round of voting.
— with files from the Canadian Press