Alberta Legislature PHOTO: SUTTERSTOCK

Premier Danielle Smith has a seat in the legislature now, after winning the Brooks-Medicine Hat byelection last week.

Following the win, Smith has signalled her plans to pivot toward more mainstream issues such as healthcare and cost of living. If she does manage this feat, it would be a change from Smith’s first weeks in office, which have been marked by instability and unpredictability in her public statements, apologies and clarifications. Early polls have shown her struggling, especially in the big cities.

Of course, unstable and unpredictable is one-way the Alberta government has been described in recent years, with Jason Kenney getting turfed in May by the party he founded. Kenney’s ouster triggered a subsequent United Conservative Party leadership race that Smith won on the sixth ballot.

As Smith prepares to govern, for the seven months leading up to the 2023 provincial election, there are three key areas we are keeping our eyes on, to see what happens next.

Alberta First

The new premier’s leadership campaign slogan was “Alberta First,” which she explained on her website is necessary because “the people of this province are not being treated fairly by Ottawa.”

On election night, Smith stated in her acceptance speech, “no longer will Alberta ask permission from Ottawa to be prosperous and free.”

Throughout her campaign, Smith appealed to many UCP members in their frustrations with the previous Kenney government as well as the federal government led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Smith announced her sovereignty act in June and it immediately became the campaign’s most discussed policy topic. The proposed act would allow Alberta to refuse to enact or enforce any federal legislation that they don’t agree with –– in short giving Alberta unprecedented autonomy and ability that no other province or territory holds.

Melanee Thomas, a political science professor at the U of C, says that she is “watching with alarm”, at what this new leadership is saying and how it does not align with good government and mature politics.

“What Danielle Smith is selling Albertans is often like a pile of bullshit, because it is completely inconsistent with the constitution,” said Thomas.

Health care

Smith connected with many Albertans –– rural in particular –– who were fed up with public health restrictions and vaccine mandates –– part of the province and nation’s COVID-19 response.

On her first day in office, Smith announced she was going to dismiss Dr. Deena Hinshaw as the province’s chief medical officer of health, a position she’s held since 2019 –– however as of now Hinshaw still holds her position.

PHOTO: CALGARY JOURNAL ARCHIVES

As well, the new premier said during her campaign that she has plans to replace the entire board of Alberta Health Services and put in place a new CEO, as she sees their management of AHS as a failure at appropriately handling the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite this, she kept Calgary MLA Jason Copping in his post as health minister.

Thomas explains that after much hostility between the health care system, its workers, and the previous Kenney government this is a crucial time for our health system in Alberta.

“After everything, after the hostility of the premier Kenney government, the hostility with the government negotiating a new contract with physicians, after watching, especially rural Alberta bleed primary care and physicians,” said Thomas.

“Anybody who cares about the stability of healthcare is looking at this like ‘Okay, how much damage can be done in the next seven months, before the next election?’”

Party unity

On Oct. 24 Smith revealed her highly anticipated cabinet, which is almost double in size to previous provincial government. The 24-person cabinet, with an additional two ministers without portfolios, includes familiar faces in five of the six former running mates she faced during the UCP Leadership Race –– Travis Toews, Brian Jean, Rebecca Shultz, Todd Loewen and Rajan Sawheny. 

A handful of ministers kept their old positions and portfolios but we did see some reshuffling –– and although Smith enlarged the cabinet, only four women were appointed with no specific ministry for women.

The new premier won on the sixth ballot, obtaining roughly 43 per cent of her party’s vote.

During their leadership campaigns, many of the candidates who now sit in Smith’s cabinet argued against the idea of a sovereignty act and highlighted how it would not pass the courts or actually help Alberta. 

When Smith was first elected, Thomas reflected on previous leaders whose cabinets held certain levels of skepticism around their policies and how that ultimately forced them out and how she believes this new leadership draws some parallels of similarity. 

“All of the talk of unity it does, for me, ring a little bit hollow,” said Thomas.

A look at the UCP cabinet after Smith swore in the 27 ministers on Oct. 24. PHOTO: JASON FRANSON, THE CANADIAN PRESS

After the lack of unity within the Kenney government, it will be important for this new UCP government to come together on a unified front and work to unify Albertans in preparation for next year’s election. 

Smith was seen as the frontrunner throughout the five-month leadership race, so her win is not a surprise. But the anxiety and worry that some Albertans have about her leadership is very real.

Thomas says those who are worried about Smith’s Alberta should remember the next provincial election is scheduled for May 29.

“If there are things they’re seeing that they don’t like, one of the things they should do is be determined to vote,” said Thomas. “People have a responsibility to participate in elections because elections are key accountability mechanisms.”

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