Danielle Smith, focus of rivals' debate criticism, deemed UCP leadership front-runner

·3 min read

EDMONTON — Political observers say the United Conservative leadership debate demonstrated that former Wildrose leader Danielle Smith is the pacesetter of a party defining itself not by what it stands for but by what it rails against.

“I don’t know who the front-runner is, but clearly everyone on that stage thought Danielle Smith was the front-runner. That was my big takeaway,” Calgary-based pollster Janet Brown said Thursday in an interview.

“Regardless of what the polls say, she is the one that everyone is focused on.”

On Wednesday, Smith and six other candidates debated issues ranging from health care to unity at an airport hangar in Medicine Hat, Alta.

Smith was the focus of criticism from opponents for recent cancer comments and for past musings on an Alberta sales tax, but mainly for her proposed Alberta sovereignty act.

The act, which Smith promises to bring in this fall if she wins the Oct. 6 vote, would grant the province the power to ignore federal laws and court rulings deemed not in its interests.

Candidates Travis Toews, Rebecca Schulz, Rajan Sawhney and Brian Jean dismissed the proposal as illegal, unenforceable and a lightning rod for division and economic uncertainty.

Legal experts have also said the plan would be illegal and a direct challenge to the rule of law.

Smith said she believes her bill would pass legal muster and that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government is the one creating economic chaos with laws and policies hamstringing Alberta energy development.

Political scientist Duane Bratt also said it's clear Smith is the front-runner.

He said fighting Ottawa has become the leitmotif of the leadership vote, with all candidates adopting various combative postures while seeking the policy sweet spot to get results on everything from equalization to energy policy.

“They all have to somehow criticize Trudeau and the federal government and criticize (Smith’s) sovereignty act -– and that’s a delicate dance,” said Bratt, with Mount Royal University in Calgary.

Jean, also a former Wildrose leader, said he would push to reopen the Constitution to get Alberta a better deal. Toews has floated the idea of levies on regions and products to push Alberta’s interests.

Former cabinet ministers Schulz, Sawhney and Leela Aheer said Alberta can do more by building consensus while pursuing hardball negotiations.

Former UCP caucus member Todd Loewen advocated go-it-alone programs, like a provincial pension plan.

Smith also came under attack for recent podcast comments positing that early-stage cancer is within a patient's control – a stance criticized as profoundly misinformed and cruel.

She said her comments were misinterpreted.

Bratt noted the other candidates hammered Smith on her cancer remark but didn’t highlight her past promotion of questionable medical policies and remedies, particularly during COVID-19.

“I think they let (Smith) off the hook,” said Bratt. “They didn’t make those links because I don’t think they really want to talk about COVID again because they know that angers up the (party’s) base.”

Smith got the largest round of applause and cheers from audience members when she criticized Premier Jason Kenney’s cabinet for not apologizing for imposing what she termed onerous and unfair health restrictions during the pandemic.

The candidates stressed rebuilding trust in the party, strained to the breaking point during COVID-19, and said unity is critical to defeating Opposition Leader Rachel Notley’s NDP in the May 2023 general election.

“It sounded almost to a person like their biggest argument is: ‘We can win against Rachel Notley,'” said political scientist Lori Williams with Mount Royal University.

“What kind of vision is that? I’m better than Notley? I can beat Notley?

“I had no real sense of what they stood for and a lot more about what they stood against — and that doesn’t generate a lot of momentum.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 28, 2022

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press

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