Alberta Premier Danielle Smith at a recent news conference (Photo: Alberta Newsroom/Flickr).

With the thoughts that you’ll be thinkin’
You could be another Lincoln
If you only had a brain.

—    Scarecrow, The Wizard of Oz

Could Danielle Smith have handled introduction of her “Sovereignty Act” better?

Answer: Yes. 

Like the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, though, this would have required that she only had a brain.

This is a way of asking, Could Alberta’s premier have handled the introduction of the act technically known as the Alberta Sovereignty within a United Canada Act – hereinafter known as ASWAUCA, pronounced “ass-woke-uh” – any more badly?

This is not to say, of course, that Premier Smith actually lacks a brain. Indeed, I’m quite sure she has a very fine one. 

It is only to say that she obviously didn’t use it. 

This is probably because she listened to someone like Rob Anderson, who used to be her Wildrose Party deputy leader, was more recently chair of her successful United Conservative Party (UCP) leadership campaign, and is now executive director of the Premier’s Office. 

Anderson is one of the authors of the “Free Alberta Strategy,” which most recently articulated the concept of an Alberta sovereignty act.

The final version of the Sovereignty Act would have “a whole head of very sharp teeth,” Anderson vowed last month after the original concept of a provincial law to ignore federal laws was widely mocked and condemned as patently unconstitutional. “It will be very meaningful, and it will change the dynamic.”

He meant the dynamic with Ottawa, though, not with Alberta voters and UCP supporters.

Smith and Anderson are well known in conservative political circles in Alberta to bring out the worst in each other. This probably explains why the premier didn’t use her head, or even her political lizard brain, in the introduction of ASWAUCA, and hence the growing troubles she has with it now. 

Long before ASWAUCA was drafted, many of the independantiste ideas the legislation was supposed to deliver were found in Stephen Harper’s notorious 2001 manifesto, the so-called Firewall Letter.

Harper went on to be the Conservative prime minister of Canada for nearly a decade and never uttered another peep about the Firewall manifesto, which suggests the strategies laid out in the letter to Ralph Klein were principally intended to discomfit the Liberals in Ottawa and, secondarily, to drive Premier Ralph Klein’s Alberta government further to the right. 

But then, unlike either Smith or Anderson, Harper was obviously a very stable genius, to borrow a phrase. 

Klein, who may not have been very stable and certainly wasn’t a genius, nevertheless had excellent political instincts, and immediately threw the Firewall Letter into the shredder, where it belonged. 

So what went wrong with the introduction of Smith’s Sovereignty Act – a key part of her success in her campaign to lead the UCP, which required her to court the far-right fringe of a party that has been sliding for a while into immoderation?

Answer: Mainly, she introduced it.

But, someone is sure to think, she had to! She’s promised it. And her most enthusiastic supporters would have demanded it. 

However, just because she’d promised it and her fans thought it was a good idea doesn’t mean actually putting it in writing and introducing it to the Legislature was also an idea with merit.

In fact, this was the worst course of action she could have taken. It should have been obvious – indeed, it was obvious – that an Alberta sovereignty act in any form would have been an unpopular and destabilizing idea. 

Now, I understand that some of Smith’s advisors appear to think a certain amount of destabilization is a good idea. 

But when the Calgary Chamber of Commerce is screaming at you from the rafters about the uncertainty you’re introducing and the Opposition keeps rising in the polls, the instability you’ve cooked up is probably not having the kind of effect you’d anticipated.

Moreover, no matter how cowed Smith’s UCP Caucus appears to be right now, rewriting the act into a Trojan horse for making the Legislature all but irrelevant by allowing the Cabinet to rewrite legislation at will without re-submitting it to MLAs for a vote has to be causing a certain amount of angst among government MLAs.

I mean, what politician has a goal of legislating themselves into irrelevance? 

To those who say ASWAUCA doesn’t do what I say it does, I advise them to read Bill 1 itself, not the government’s press release. 

Of course, the bill could still be amended. But for the time being, ASWAUCA deserves the unease it has caused, and the growing discomfort with it on the right – which must be worrying, among other things, about what might happen if it remained on the books and fell into the hands of a more woke government, even for a moment. 

So what should Smith have done? 

The answer, as any student of politics surely understands, would have been to say she wasn’t going to introduce a sovereignty act just yet – but that, by gosh, she would the instant it was required. 

That would have kept the threat on the agenda, the NDP Opposition on its back foot, and the government’s allies in business comfortable with continuing their financial and moral support. 

It’s too late now. The government has left itself with the choice of eviscerating its own legislation by amendment and looking like it’s flip-flopping and running for the exits, or sticking with it, and quite possibly sealing its doom whenever the next election takes place.

Not a good choice.

In the end, Scarecrow turned out to be the wisest person in all of Oz. 

Smith? Not so much, probably.

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...