Former Wildrose leader Danielle Smith in 2014

Danielle Smith nearly became the first woman to be elected premier of Alberta.

As leader of the Wildrose Party, which despite her efforts was never quite successful at portraying itself as a party of the centre right, she came close, tantalizingly close.

Alas for Smith, the Wildrose Party’s opportunity to form government foundered in a Lake of Fire in 2012, and Alison Redford, who had already been chosen as the Progressive Conservative Party’s leader and appointed premier, became the politician whom history will record as the first woman to be elected to the province’s top political job by voters.

After that came Smith’s 2014 effort to reunite her party with the PCs, by then led by Jim Prentice — a partial tactical success but a catastrophic strategic failure — and the election of Rachel Notley as Alberta’s first NDP Premier five and a half months later.

Smith was rejected by PC party members as their candidate in her own Highwood riding in March 2015, ending her political career, and today works as a broadcaster hosting a popular right-wing talk radio show in Calgary.

Now, the question must be asked: Has Smith become a secret admirer of Premier Notley — or perhaps a not-so-secret admirer?

At least, one wonders, does she think Notley is a preferable premier to Jason Kenney, the leader of the Opposition United Conservative Party, which is the product of the merger of the two conservative parties Smith represented during her three years as an Alberta MLA?

This might not be quite as astonishing as it would seem had we gone by political labels alone. As many have noted, Premier Notley’s government, despite the surprise of its election in 2015, has turned out to be quite fiscally conservative, surprisingly open to “free market” neoliberal economics, administratively capable, vigorously supportive of the petroleum industry, and at times aggressive in its relationships with other Canadian governments.

At the same time, unlike the UCP and Kenney himself, the NDP and Notley are untainted by the extreme social conservatism of the very sort that led Smith to try to reunite her party with the Progressive Conservative mothership in December 2014.

In other words, notwithstanding the noisy rhetoric emitting from the UCP, there’s not actually all that much light between Notley, the former labour lawyer, and Smith, the former Fraser Institute apparatchik.

While Smith is a doctrinaire utopian market fundamentalist, she is socially quite liberal, as Notley is and as Kenney emphatically is not.

Notley, as has been frequently observed by supporters and detractors alike, is the best progressive conservative premier Alberta has had since Peter Lougheed — or perhaps even the best including Lougheed, who founded Alberta’s 44-year Tory dynasty in 1971 and died in 2012.

Which may explain Smith’s remarkable essay in the Calgary Herald on Friday, in which she came quite close to endorsing Notley, and apparently had to struggle to find anything nice to say about Kenney.

Smith framed the difference between Premier Notley and Opposition Leader Kenney as essentially the same as the difference between Lougheed and Ralph Klein. If you think Lougheed was Alberta’s best premier, she wrote, “I bet you are voting for Notley.” If it’s Klein you place atop our pantheon of premiers, “my guess is you are voting for Kenney.”

As Smith is surely aware, history remembers Lougheed as a competent, prudent and visionary manager, and Klein as someone who sacrificed the province’s infrastructure and savings in the name of tax giveaways, irresponsible Ralph Bucks payments, and phoney balanced books.

Smith devoted the largest part of her 700-word op-ed to describing Lougheed’s successes — and the Lougheed-like qualities of Notley’s management.

“Notley is, without question, the inheritor of the Lougheed tradition,” wrote Smith. “That’s not to say he was a full on socialist, but Notley isn’t either. I think most Albertans have been shocked to see how pragmatic (sic) she has governed, particularly as it concerns natural resources.”

Almost as an afterthought, Smith devoted a short paragraph to half-heartedly criticizing Lougheed, and another to describing Klein’s good points, one of which she noted was that he had a nice smile, which is true.

While she reached no strong conclusion about the better course for Alberta, this is certainly not the ringing endorsement of the UCP one would have expected from Alberta’s former conservative Opposition leader at this moment in history. Nor is it the stinging critique of the NDP she might have written during her previous career as a political columnist.

Smith remains a respected figure on the socially progressive right in Alberta, despite the abuse she has suffered from social conservatives in the years since 2014.

You’d almost think she’s done the math and realizes what a disaster Kenney would be if he won power, but as a former guiding star of the Alberta right can’t quite make herself unequivocally state the obvious.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s bog,

Image: Daveberta/Flickr

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David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe...