It wasn’t that long ago that Alberta’s politics were the most predictable and least interesting in the entire country. But now, after a decade of turmoil and tumult that’s seen six premiers — the same number who ran the province between 1935 and 2006 — and three different parties in power, Alberta will now be led by its most unpredictable premier yet. If the ideas that defined Danielle Smith’s leadership campaign for the United Conservative Party (UCP) are any indication, Albertans will be begging for some boredom from their politics very soon.
Smith has already announced plans to challenge the Canadian Constitution, disregard the courts that interpret it and wage a broader war on the health-care system that would even make Jason Kenney blush. “We let the experts make the decisions and they let us all down and they’ve created chaos in society, division in society and now they’ve created chaos in the health-care system,” Smith told Calgary Sun columnist Rick Bell. “You bet. That will be my target.”
She also intends to get rid of large swathes of senior leadership in the public service, a decision even Kenney wouldn’t have dared to contemplate. “The UCP came in and basically kept in place the people Rachel Notley hired,” Smith told Bell. “Now you’re asking people who were implementing a socialist agenda to implement a conservative agenda.”
Never mind that most of said people were kept in place by the NDP when they took over from 40 years of Conservative rule in 2015, or that their agenda while in office was anything but socialist. That Smith is so willing to politicize an inherently non-partisan public service speaks to her attitude towards democratic conventions and norms — and her willingness to break them.
If that sounds a little familiar, it should. This sort of hostility to the established order was at the heart of Donald Trump’s approach to governing, such as it was. And while Smith is far more moderate than Trump in some of her social values and views (and better informed on, well, everything), she shares his disdain for inconveniences like courts and the rule of law. Her proposed “Alberta Sovereignty Act” is a direct insult to both, given it proposes to ignore court rulings — and even the Constitution itself — where her government sees fit.
Indeed, that insult is the point. Just ask Barry Cooper, a political science professor and one of the idea’s architects, who wrote in an op-ed: “The Canadian Constitution has never worked in favour of Albertans, so it needs to be changed. Changing the Constitution, in fact, if not in terms of black letter law, is called politics. Law exists downstream from politics.”
This is a wilful misinterpretation of any number of things, from basic aspects of reality to the way our Constitution actually can be changed. That it apparently informs Smith’s signature policy is not terribly surprising, given she also thought Ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine were good treatments for COVID-19 and “moderate” cigarette smoking significantly reduces your risk of disease. Smith seems irresistibly drawn to the outlier opinion, even when the evidence is pretty clearly stacked against it.
Opinion: Danielle Smith is about to hit #Alberta with a category five shitstorm. @maxfawcett writes for @natobserver #abpoli #UCP
That’s especially true of her sovereignty gambit, one that Canadian constitutional scholar Eric Adams described on Twitter as “a blatantly unconstitutional quasi-separatist piece of legislation.” Outgoing premier Jason Kenney has been just as withering in his own commentary on it, especially when it comes to the impact it could have on investment and economic opportunity to the province. “They're interested in political stability, not political chaos. They're interested in a jurisdiction that respects the rule of law and the authority of the courts… Not one that thumbs its nose, banana republic-style, at those foundational principles.”
But that’s what Smith seems determined to do, and her thumb is at the ready. In an interview with the Globe and Mail, she said she plans “to double down” on the policies that won her the leadership. Don’t expect her to put water in her constitutional wine, whether that’s her Alberta Sovereignty Act or a second challenge of the federal government’s Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act (Alberta lost the first one). Yes, both efforts will almost certainly fall flat on their face. But like Trump, she can use those defeats to rail against the courts, elites, the media and any number of other enemies of her people.
You can be sure Pierre Poilievre will be watching this whole spectacle unfold. He has more in common with Smith than his former cabinet colleague Kenney, given his own libertarian inclinations and proclivity for attacking institutions and elites. Both pandered aggressively to the most conservative elements of their respective parties, and both were rewarded for it. Now, both need to find a way to win over the broader public.
Smith will have to pass that test first, and there’s no guarantee that her version of the UCP will survive next May’s provincial election in Alberta. Indeed, her surprisingly narrow victory as leader probably gives Rachel Notley’s NDP their best possible chance of winning. But if Smith does manage to win a general election in Alberta, her government will give Canadians a sneak preview over the next few years of what could be in store for the rest of the country if Poilievre prevails in his own contest. One thing is for certain: it won’t be boring.