While she led the way in terms of first-ballot votes and having — literally — the loudest cheering section at Calgary’s BMO Centre on Thursday night, it was not until the sixth round of the preferential ballot for the United Conservative Party leadership vote that Danielle Smith won and became Alberta’s premier-designate.
“I think it shows she’s got an issue with party unity,” said Duane Bratt, a political science professor at Calgary’s Mount Royal University.
“It was much closer than I think people expected… But you didn’t get a sense of how close it was based on her speech.”
Smith, the former leader of the Wildrose Party before crossing the floor of the legislature to join the Progressive Conservatives in 2014, will replace Premier Jason Kenney as UCP leader five months after he announced he would step down after only winning 51 per cent support in a leadership review amid a growing number of caucus members being openly critical of his leadership.
“She needs the support of caucus tomorrow morning,” University of Calgary researcher and political commentator Jason Ribeiro said of Smith, a former talk show host for Corus Entertainment, Global News’ parent company.
“She needs the support of a wider swath of MLAs that are going to run for her in a general election.”
Smith’s at times fiery victory speech took aim at the federal government, which she accused of landlocking Alberta’s energy sector and infringing on the rights of Albertans to make their own decisions about their bodies. But she also appeared to strike a conciliatory tone with her UCP rivals, including Kenney, who had been vocally opposed to her proposed Sovereignty Act, which some critics argue would be unconstitutional, but she has said would simply allow Alberta to ignore federal laws that are not in the province’s interest.
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“(Her speech) alternated between sweetness and light and thanking her candidates and thanking Jason Kenney and talking about more money for education and support for front-line health-care workers, and then some absolutely fierce partisanship, fierce defiance,” Bratt noted. “We heard a lot about the (Prime Minister Justin) Trudeau- (Alberta NDP Leader Rachel) Notley- (federal NDP Leader Jagmeet) Singh alliance and she was going to stand up for Alberta against Ottawa and Alberta was not going to let Ottawa tell us what to put in our bodies or not to put in our bodies — so real themes in her campaign around the Sovereignty Act and around anti-COVID(-19) restrictions.
“Depending on how you analyze the speech, it was either cheery, smiling, charming, chuckling Danielle Smith, or fiery, angry Danielle Smith, and I think that played to the audience.”
Smith is not currently an elected MLA and will need to win a byelection to take a seat in the Alberta legislature.
“She has said she will run in a byelection but not for an open seat that’s already there like Calgary-Elbow, but some place in southern Alberta,” Bratt said.
Bratt said he will be interested to see if Smith has a new cabinet ready to be named by the time she is sworn in as premier, something expected to occur next week. He noted she has already invited fellow leadership candidate Todd Loewen back into the UCP caucus. He has been sitting as an Independent ever since he was booted from caucus after calling for Kenney’s resignation.
Ribeiro noted that not only will Smith need to try to bring a sometimes fractured UCP together, but will also now need to try to win over Albertans who are not UCP members ahead of the provincial election this spring.
“She needs the support of a wide swath of Albertans to actually make sure that she’s not contributing to another NDP government,” he said, adding that some would argue it was a lack of unity among Alberta conservatives that helped the NDP win the 2015 election.
Ribeiro suggested that Smith’s victory speech did seem to address an audience outside her base, but not in the way some may have expected.
“I didn’t expect the broader audience was going to be Ottawa,” he said. “So much of the content of that speech was literally in first-person voice to Ottawa, talking on behalf of Alberta. I found that very interesting.”
Notley offered her congratulations to Smith on social media.
“Serving as premier of Alberta and leading a political party is both an honour and a privilege,” she tweeted. “Congratulations on your victory this evening.”
Notley has scheduled a news conference for Friday morning in Edmonton to offer further reaction to Smith’s win.
In addition to proposing her Sovereignty Act, Smith has said she plans to oversee changes to Alberta’s Human Rights Act to ensure someone’s vaccination status does not lead to them being discriminated against.
In her speech Thursday night, Smith also called out Alberta Health Services for its “dysfunction” and suggested anyone at the provincial health authority who does not immediately follow her direction would risk being replaced.
Smith also spoke of taking action to address the increasing cost of living and rising energy prices in Alberta.
–With files from The Canadian Press