With nine weeks left in Alberta’s United Conservative Party (UCP) leadership race, seven candidates are running for the job of party leader and provincial premier.
Running in the race are UCP MLA and former opposition Wildrose party leader Danielle Smith and UCP MLAs Travis Toews, Brian Jean, Rebecca Schulz, Rajan Sawhney, and Leela Aheer, as well as Independent MLA Todd Loewen, who was expelled from the UCP caucus last year for criticizing Premier Jason Kenney’s COVID-19 response.
If polls are to be taken as an indication of party members’ votes in the leadership race, Smith is the perceived front-runner. A rolling poll conducted by Mainstreet Research for political advocacy group Take Back Alberta showed Smith winning on the sixth ballot with 58.1 percent of support on Aug. 16.
Smith was once best known for defecting as the opposition leader who crossed the floor with eight other MLAs to join Premier Jim Prentice’s Progressive Conservatives in 2014. The following year, Smith lost the PC nomination and the PCs lost the election to the NDP—punishments Smith say resulted from not communicating with party members prior to the floor-crossing.
During her six-year political exodus, Smith rose to prominence as a Calgary radio host known for tackling difficult subjects. She left that role during the COVID-19 pandemic, citing censorship.
She’s now appealing to voters with promises to never lock down the province again and to resist pressure from Ottawa to do so. Individuals must have sovereignty over their bodies, and this right must be enshrined into law, she says. Smith also wants to create a provincial police force and tax-collection agency, and wants a return to regional Alberta Health Services boards.
The Alberta Sovereignty Act—a pinnacle of Smith’s campaign—promises a tougher stance with Ottawa by allowing Alberta to reject federal laws deemed harmful to the province. She has said the sovereignty legislation will be her first piece of legislation, if elected, as a means to get projects built in Alberta without federal interference.
Meanwhile, Smith’s opponents have sought to contrast themselves to her.
Sawhney has described herself as the antidote to Smith. A Danielle Smith government would be “disunifying” for the party’s caucus, she told reporters following the first leadership debate in July. During the debate, Kenney’s former transportation minister said Smith’s Sovereignty Act doesn’t make sense and accused her opponent of being risky and hot-headed.
“That’s why it was important for all candidates to speak up today about some of the policy ideas that [Smith] has brought forward that are incredibly damaging,” Sawhney said at the time.
Toews warned that the Sovereignty Act would drive investment away. He’s branded himself as a “serious, reliable leader for Alberta” and said his work as the former finance minister to balance the budget is at risk “if we choose a chaotic, unproven leader, with risky ideas that could hand the next election to Rachel Notley.”
Aheer said the Sovereignty Act is redundant because Canada’s Constitution already enshrines areas of provincial jurisdiction.
Jean said Smith chases “controversial topics” after she came under fire last month for comments about preventative treatments and cancer.
Schulz also took aim at Smith for her comments on cancer, saying she “has a history of poor judgment.” The former children’s services minister has the backing of former Conservative party interim leader Rona Ambrose, who is her campaign chair, and the endorsement of former Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall.
Loewen is the only candidate who hasn’t attempted to brand himself by attacking Smith. Like Smith, he wants a provincial police force and supports the Sovereignty Act.
Jordon Kosik, founder of the popular Facebook page Holding MLAs Accountable, which hosts over 21,000 Albertans, told The Epoch Times he grew to respect Smith during her time as a radio host. She was one of the first with a platform—and well before Loewen—to push back against lockdowns and question the government for jailing pastors who held services in breach of restrictions, he said.
Kosik said he started his Facebook page to unite Albertans to take action during the pandemic, and that he was inspired after seeing Smith hold the premier’s “feet to the fire.”
“She kind of gave me encouragement to do all this stuff,” he said.
Kenney has also chimed in on Smith’s proposal, saying it’s a “de facto plan for separatism” and a “disaster for Alberta,” as he says it would drive away business.
Smith has insisted that her proposed plan meets legal requirements and said it’s the federal government that has created uncertainty in Alberta through policies that have strangled developments in the energy sector.
“Ottawa has created the chaos,” Smith said.
UCP members will elect a new leader and premier on Oct. 6. The leadership contest was launched after Kenney said in May he will step down as party leader and premier since he only received 51.4 percent of party support in a leadership review vote.
The Canadian Press contributed to this report.