A photo of Danielle Smith in 2014, around the time she led many of her Wildrose Party MLAs across the floor to join the Progressive Conservative Party; disaster followed.
Danielle Smith in 2014, around the time she led many of her Wildrose Party MLAs across the floor to join the Progressive Conservative Party; disaster followed. Credit: Dave Cournoyer

Last week politically attentive Albertans began to realize that Danielle Smith really is likely to win the United Conservative Party (UCP) leadership race and will soon be sworn in as premier of Alberta.

If that gives you a bad feeling in the pit of your stomach, you’re not alone. 

Nevertheless, it’s now sinking in across the political spectrum that the former Wildrose leader who came close to becoming premier in the 2012 provincial election has finally done something right and is about to fulfill her ambition. 

What comes after that, of course, remains a topic of conjecture. 

So far, Smith has never had a political triumph that wasn’t followed by a political catastrophe. She seems to possess a sort of reverse Midas touch. 

Back in 2012, as is well remembered, Smith’s Wildrose Alliance Party appeared to be on the brink of success when it was sunk by a sudden storm on a Lake of Fire brewed up by an evangelical candidate who didn’t know when to keep his lips zipped.

The revelation enabled Smith, who failed to condemn Pastor Allan Hunsperger’s words, to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. 

In 2014, Smith seemed to pound the final nail into the coffin of her political career when as Opposition leader she persuaded most of her caucus to cross the floor to join the Progressive Conservative government of then-premier Jim Prentice.

In the spring of 2015, her career looked dead on arrival when voters in the Highwood Riding she had represented imposed the supreme political penalty for what they saw as the betrayal of her own party. She lost the battle for the PC nomination, knocked off by an Okotoks city councillor

“I am leaving public life,” she texted to a reporter who asked her about her political future on the night of the nomination vote. She followed up by telling the reporter to “piss off” when she dared to ask a follow-up question. A month and a half later, Albertans elected a majority NDP government and sent Rachel Notley to the Premier’s Office.

Now we’re about to have to get used to talking about Premier Danielle Smith. 

You can sense the other UCP leadership campaigns giving up, even former finance minister Travis Toews’s effort, which had legs. 

Even poor old Brian Jean, the other former Wildrose leader who more than anyone else was responsible for successfully undermining Premier Jason Kenney’s campaign to survive last spring’s leadership review seems to be fading from the scene.

The MLA for Ft. McMurray-Lac La Biche, elected in March in a by-election on a campaign of getting rid of Kenney, already appears to have absorbed the lesson that “the hand that wields the knife shall never wear the crown.”

Friday he posted an amateurish video on social media pretending to chop taxes with a large plastic Viking axe while yakking with a guy supposedly dressed like a Norse god.

You can see conservative mainstream media – the only kind of mainstream media there is in Alberta – trimming its sails to accommodate the not-very-fresh new breeze. 

On Monday, a well-connected political columnist published a piece suggesting talk of the government melting down or splitting up if Smith is elected was all just political pish-posh. 

Don’t worry, folks, Smith will forgive her enemies, hinted Don Braid. The UCP will remain united. “Recently Smith’s campaign has been privately sending out conciliatory messages to other candidates,” he said soothingly.

On Tuesday, another well-connected political columnist with the same employer reported vague details about an internal poll done for Smith’s campaign that showed her far ahead among UCP members eligible to vote in the leadership election.

If Rick Bell’s numbers were right, the only question remaining is whether she’ll win on the first ballot or will have to wait for the second or third. 

Details were scarce, and there was some scoffing. But by Friday there was a low buzz that polls by other campaigns were netting similar results. 

Conservative politicians formerly aligned with other candidates are starting to slip over to Smith’s side too, trying to repair any damage from their earlier critical comments about the economic harm the frontrunner’s promise of an unconstitutional “Sovereignty Act” will do.

Senior campaigners for other candidates are switching their allegiance to Smith as well.

And even some of Kenney’s ministers are obviously thinking about what they’ll have to do to stay in Smith’s good graces, and her cabinet – Kaycee Madu, c’mon down! 

Thursday, the same columnist published a fanciful column suggesting Smith’s separatist legislation will have no impact on business investment.

He trotted out an announcement about an airplane plant planned east of Calgary – obviously a decision made long ago and quite possibly intended as a union-busting strategy – as proof passing the Sovereignty Act, which will supposedly allow Alberta to ignore federal laws, will do no economic harm. 

Wednesday, just in case, Braid wrote a column suggesting Toews is still a player. But at this late hour you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing. 

Despite knowing she will have been chosen for the job by less than 3.5 per cent of the province’s voters, Smith is still vowing to press ahead with her Sovereignty Act – or, as Kenney’s former principal secretary recently called it, the Alberta Suicide Act

Once her selection is official, UCP MLAs, even those who have been very critical of the crazier aspects of her campaign, will close ranks. Count on it, she will have no trouble passing the Sovereignty Act, no matter who said what about it. 

Her post-victory strategy will likely involve trimming her own sails to sound more moderate. 

But it seems likely she’ll nevertheless press on with her Sovereignty schtick and stick to her plans to throw the province’s health care system into chaos through decentralization and a politicized inquisition into its conduct through the pandemic, revenge for to public health measures to control COVID-19 hated by the UCP base. 

Smith is, after all, both a COVID skeptic and a utopian market fundamentalist. 

She will have lots on money on hand to distract us from the harm she plans.

Still, the potential for a political or economic catastrophe is high. 

Well, you have to give Smith this much: If she pulls a victory off on Oct. 6, it will rightly be regarded as the most remarkable political recoveries in Alberta history.

Fasten your seatbelts!

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...