“Hopefully the prime minister and his caucus are watching tonight,” the newly re-elected premier told a raucous crowd of supporters in Calgary.
Indeed, all eyes will be on Alberta as Smith begins her second term, which political watchers say will have implications not just for the province but for the rest of Canada as well.
Alberta has always had a testy relationship with the federal government and even other provinces as it defends its profitable energy industry and other interests.
But the past four years under the United Conservative Party and during the COVID-19 pandemic have seen Edmonton’s relations with Ottawa grow particularly tempestuous.
The question now is whether a fresh start is on the horizon — though experts have doubts.
“It’s gospel that the federal government ignores Alberta, and to a degree that is correct,” said Allan Tupper, a political science professor at the University of British Columbia who spent decades teaching in Alberta. “There’s a great deal of resentment.”
“At the end of the day, (Smith) has to recognize that she has to deal with the federal government. No matter what kinds of laws she passes, provinces have to work with Ottawa.”
Global News and others projected a Smith victory Monday night after a race beset by slow tabulations. It was a race that saw both Smith and Notley trying to frame themselves as someone voters could trust.
It remains to be seen whether Smith continues to pursue the often-tense approach with Ottawa she demonstrated during her short premiership. Her government passed the controversial Alberta sovereignty act and openly mulled opting out of the Canada Pension Plan and replacing it with a provincial version.
None of those proposals were part of the UCP platform during the campaign, and it still remains to be seen what will happen when or if Smith’s government invokes the sovereignty act — a move that would likely spark court challenges.
Onion Lake Cree Nation in Alberta has already sued to block the legislation, claiming the government did not consult with Indigenous groups. Smith launched Indigenous consultations after the act was passed.
If Smith moves forward with pursuing a provincial pension plan or other similar moves, experts say that could hurt efforts between Ottawa and the provinces to work together on solving national issues, like health-care funding earlier this year.
“I think there are questions about how Canada and the federation can work together when there seems to be some political advantage to be gained by attacking the federal government and provinces with which they disagree,” said Lori Williams, a political science professor at Calgary’s Mount Royal University.
One area where Smith will be likely to butt heads with Trudeau is climate. The premier has decried the Liberal government’s “Sustainable Jobs Plan” to move Canada’s economy away from fossil fuels toward renewable energy while ensuring oil and gas workers are trained for the jobs of the future.
Smith has pushed for Alberta to be exempted from the plan, arguing it fails to recognize Alberta’s right to develop its own natural resources and manage its workforce.
Smith has also criticized Ottawa’s carbon tax and its goal to cut emissions 40 to 45 per cent below 2005 levels by the end of this decade, as well as a net-zero electricity grid by 2035.
Alberta’s energy sector has already taken steps to reduce emissions and adopt measures like carbon capture and other technological advancements. Experts believe local and outside investors will want a premier who supports the oil and gas industry by standing up for its own environmental measures, rather than clinging to a reliance on fossil fuels.
“Striking that balance … strategically just makes more sense,” Williams said. “I’ve never understood why Jason Kenney, now Danielle Smith, think (supporting oil and gas while fighting climate action) is a winner long-term beyond energizing their base.”
During her victory speech Monday night, Smith urged Trudeau and his government to work collaboratively with Alberta to develop a “meaningful” climate strategy that won’t adversely impact jobs or revenues in the province.
She warned incoming federal policies will hurt Canadians across the country and “strain the patience and goodwill of Albertans.”
“When Canadians work together, there’s no challenge that we can’t overcome. I believe that, but it takes two parties acting in good faith to achieve that meaningful partnership,” she said.
“Alberta is willing to be that partner, and we need our federal government to show it is willing to partner in good faith as well, and now is the time to do so. We are waiting.”
One person who will be watching Smith’s victory and performance moving forward will be federal Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre. Like Smith, he has tapped into voter resentment of Trudeau’s Liberals while seeking to expand his base.
While Poilievre will likely be encouraged to see Smith retain her premiership, it’s not yet clear if his endorsement of her could hurt him when his party faces more moderate swing voters in Ontario and Quebec, whose votes he will need to become prime minister.
Until the next federal election, what Smith’s victory means is likely more political friction between Alberta and Ottawa — not to mention, the possibility she will be forced out of party leadership just as her predecessor Kenney was.
In a recording of a Take Back Alberta meeting earlier this month, canvasser recruiters were heard urging supporters to convince voters to support the UCP despite their concerns about Smith, suggesting the premier could either be reasoned with or ousted down the road.
Political strategist Stephen Carter, who has plenty of campaign experience in Alberta, told Global News that strategy is a bad one.
“‘Don’t worry, I’ll get rid of my boss’ is generally not a great starting position in politics,” Carter said.
For now, despite evidence to the contrary, the hope will be Smith and Ottawa can reset their relationship and move forward with, as Smith put it Monday night, “good faith.”
“The country does not want constant friction with Alberta, and I think broadly speaking, at the end of the day, neither does Alberta,” Tupper said.
— with files from Global’s Saif Kaisar and the Canadian Press
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