A screenshot of Danielle Smith at her swearing-in ceremony Tuesday morning.
Danielle Smith at her swearing-in ceremony Tuesday morning. Credit: Government of Alberta Credit: Government of Alberta

When Danielle Smith was sworn in Tuesday morning as Alberta’s still-unelected United Conservative Party (UCP) premier, there can be no doubt she has executed a remarkable comeback.

But has one remarkable comeback set the stage for another? 

Way back, in 2010, I predicted in this space that Ms. Smith was one of two talented young women politicians who had an opportunity “to remake Alberta’s political history.”

Ms. Smith had become leader of the Wildrose Alliance Party seven months earlier and hadn’t yet won a seat in the Legislature. 

The other candidate to make history was a young lawyer serving her first term as a New Democrat MLA. 

Her name: Rachel Notley.

“The most engaging and promising politicians in Alberta today are two women at opposite ends of the political spectrum,” I wrote in April that year. “If they both succeed, they will make Alberta politics more interesting than those of any other province in Canada.”

Here we are, a dozen years later. Who can argue with that conclusion? 

Notley has won and lost the Premier’s Office and is fighting hard to win it back. Smith has survived an epic political disaster of her own making is about to move into the same office. 

And they are about to face off for a high-stakes round. 

Smith has only a few months to ensure today’s events are not the beginning of the end for her.

Either the UCP under Smith, still showing signs of disunity after a grinding leadership campaign, or the disciplined and energized NDP led by Notley, could form the government in the general election expected next year. 

It’s going to be an interesting election campaign, to say the least, and it starts now.

As leader of the Wildrose Alliance Party, Smith came close to becoming premier in the 2012 provincial election before her party was sunk in the final days 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.

In the weeks before the election, Alberta’s right-wing mainstream media had all but campaigned openly for Smith against premier Alison Redford. 

But on election night, smoke from the Lake of Fire still lingering, Redford’s Progressive Conservatives were re-elected with a comfortable majority.

Smith’s party captured only 17 seats with 34 per cent of the popular vote. 

Smith finally had a seat in the Legislature though, and as leader of the Opposition was not in a bad place to make the case she was a suitable premier in waiting. 

But Redford’s premiership disintegrated too quickly for Smith to have a chance to challenge her in another election. 

Instead it looked as if she would have to face Jim Prentice, a polished federal Conservative brought in to save the party who was widely expected to sweep to victory in 2016.

Instead of rolling the dice on an election, Smith – pressed by Preston Manning to patch up the Wildrose-PC rift on the right to ensure the survival of the four-decade old PC dynasty and obviously in doubt of her own chances of defeating Prentice – tried another gamble.

On December 17, 2014, she led eight members of her Wildrose Caucus across the floor of the House to join the PCs. A couple had already crossed. 

This turned out to be a disaster for Alberta conservatives of all stripes. Not only did a diminished Wildrose Caucus survive, but Smith was viewed as a traitor, disdained by the Wildrose base.

The next spring, Prentice foolishly called an early election. More Conservative voters were annoyed, some of them enough not to bother voting. 

In March 2015, Smith lost the battle for the PC nomination in her own riding. She was knocked off by a local city councillor

“I am leaving public life,” she texted that evening to a reporter who asked her about her political future. She followed up by bitterly telling the reporter to “piss off” when she asked another question. 

A month and a half later, possibly even to the astonishment of the NDP, which had entered the campaign hoping to become the official Opposition, Albertans elected a majority NDP government and sent Rachel Notley to the Premier’s Office.

Since then we’ve seen former federal cabinet minister Jason Kenney come and go – first to reunite the right in the “United Conservative Party” and win a thumping victory in 2019, then to be sent packing by the party’s increasingly Trump-adjacent base this year for not being radical enough in his response to the pandemic. 

Brian Jean, the former federal Conservative who returned to lead the Wildrose rump after Smith’s 2014 defection and returned again after a by-election this year in Ft. McMurray-Lac La Biche to try to lead the fight to remove Kenney, was all but ignored in the UCP leadership contest. 

The message to Jean, I guess: “The hand that wields the knife shall never wear the crown.”

When Smith joined the UCP leadership race, it was widely assumed the memories of 2014 would sink her campaign. They barely caused a ripple. 

How did she turn it around? 

There was the excitement generated on the far right of the UCP by her Sovereignty Act proposal, of course, notwithstanding the fact no one has ever seen a draft, if one even exists.

“There is her wild buy-in to arguably anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, her anti-scientific support for health-care quackery rather than vaccinations, and her blanket denunciations of even the most critical kinds of protections of vulnerable populations should we find ourselves in another pandemic.” Ken Boessenkool

Don’t blame me for that assessment, by the way. It’s from an essay published last Friday by Ken Boessenkool, the well-known Conservative operative and aide to the likes of former prime minister Stephen Harper and former B.C. Premier Christy Clark. He managed Rajan Sawheny’s UCP leadership campaign. 

The trouble is, as a worried Boessenkool argued, Smith’s adoption of what he accurately terms the Trump playbook “is a kamikaze mission against conservatism itself.”

Whether Smith follows through on her agenda or abandons her original supporters, he concluded, “only Rachel Notley can win.” He left the impression, with me anyway, he doesn’t think that would be such a bad thing. 

I’m not so sure he’s right Smith is doomed to lose. A lot of Albertans habitually vote Conservative without too much thought. 

And no one should underestimate either of these women. 

But that said, Smith’s choice as leader of the shaky UCP coalition undoubtedly sets the stage for another remarkable comeback: that of Rachel Notley as premier of Alberta.

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...