Long before she became Premier of Alberta, Danielle Smith was a voice familiar to many in the province. Her staunchly conservative influence was wide-ranging and profound: as a popular radio talkshow host; as leader of the Wildrose Party; as a Calgary Herald columnist; as trustee for the Calgary Board of Education; and as advocate for rural property rights. Prior to entering the United Conservative Party (UCP) leadership race, Smith, who is also owner of the Railway Dining Car at High River Station, was one of the most well-known political commentators in Alberta.
Indeed, since graduating with Economics and English degrees from the University of Calgary in 1997 (where she served as president of the campus Progressive Conservative Club) Smith has, almost unceasingly, devoted her life to public policy and politics. They are her passions.
It’s not surprising then that 51-year-old Smith, sworn in as Alberta’s 19th Premier on October 11, hit the ground running. She’s wasted no time implementing her platform, including overhauling Alberta Health Services (AHS) and pushing back against Ottawa with the Sovereignty Act. Smith knows what she wants to do and is determined to do it.
At the same time, she and her party are seeking re-election in May. To win, Smith’s vision for the province – rooted in the protection of free markets, provincial jurisdiction and individual liberties – must ring true for the majority of Albertans.
With so much to accomplish and only seven sure months to do it, Smith’s work is cut out for her. Her first two weeks in office were hardly smooth sailing – she came under fire for saying the unvaccinated were the most discriminated-against group, and for past comments on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. She clarified the former and apologized for the latter, seemingly unfazed.
“The first few weeks were really good,” Smith reflects optimistically from her Calgary office at the McDougall Centre. “There’s so much to be done with a change of government. I met with caucus, potential cabinet ministers, we had a caucus retreat and our AGM. It was a bit of a whirlwind.”
Integral to Smith’s success is a united and cohesive UCP party (the leadership of which she won on the 6th ballot). She met one-on-one with each MLA during her first week as Premier, including her opponents in the leadership race, and offered cabinet minister positions to several. Travis Toews (President of Treasury Board and Minister of Finance), Brian Jean (Minister of Jobs, Economy and Northern Development), Rebecca Schulz (Minister of Municipal Affairs), Todd Loewen (Minister of Forestry, Parks and Tourism), and Rajan Sawhney (Minister of Trade, Immigration and Multiculturalism) are all in Smith’s cabinet.
She created some new ministries, too. Kaycee Madu, who serves as Deputy Premier, has taken the role of Minister of Skilled Trades and Professions. “We’ve got a problem recognizing foreign credentials,” Smith laments. “We also have a problem recognizing the credentials of people travelling across the country. Kaycee is going to be putting a very sharp focus on how we can streamline that so we can continue to attract people with the skills we need to keep our economy going.”
As Deputy Premier, Madu will also be mindful of diversity and inclusion when it comes to hiring within government: “In order to make sure we’re reflecting the great diversity of Alberta, we have to ensure we’ve got members from each of those communities in senior decision making roles.”
Nate Glubish is heading up the newly created Ministry of Technology and Innovation. “We often talk about how are we’re going to diversify the economy, and the economy is already being diversified on the technology front,” Smith points out. “There’s some really excellent groups in Calgary – Startup TNT, Platform Calgary – and a focus on artificial intelligence and nanotechnology in Edmonton. We’ve got a number of unicorns in our province as well, like Mphasis and Infosys. That Ministry will play a prominent role.”
Emerging out of the COVID pandemic, Smith has big changes in store for AHS. Her first order of business is to fire the entire board. “We left management in charge for a number of years, under the guise that centralization was going to result in greater efficiencies and service,” she explains. “But when COVID hit, we realized that wasn’t the case. It wasn’t that COVID broke the system, rather, we realized the system was broken.”
Management decisions, she adds, have exacerbated the worker shorter and created division, resulting in ineffective ambulance services, emergency room operations and a massive backlog of surgeries. “That’s a management problem and has nothing to do with the front line,” she contends. “I think the front line would love to have new management who put their interests first and created better working conditions. That’s my priority.”
Smith’s plan includes major restructuring and foundational change, beyond the ability of an appointed board. Instead, an official administrator will report directly to the Health Minister and Premier.
“We have to be working week in, week out, to drive the change that needs to happen,” she explains. “At some point in the not too distant future, a board will be reinstalled. But we have to do the work first of making sure that we have stabilized the system – shore up the frontline, improve working conditions, resolve issues around ambulance service, resolve issues around emergency room wait times, and begin a process of allowing for enhanced surgical initiatives in all of our hospitals around Alberta.”
While she acknowledges a role for private surgical facilities, Smith would first like to see existing surgical space put to full use. “Everywhere I go around the province we’ve got operating rooms that have been mothballed or never put into service,” she laments. “We’ve spent so much taxpayer money in building those facilities out, let’s offer them up to surgeons so they can bring in their teams and start clearing the backlog.”
The response to her plan has been hugely positive. She says many doctors, nurses, paramedics, nurse practitioners and pharmacists have reached out in support.
“We are very supportive of our frontline professionals,” she reiterates. “Management has created working conditions that are untenable. We can’t have people being forced to work mandatory overtime and being burnt out because we haven’t hired sufficient staff. We need to start pushing decision making down to the local level, hire more frontline staff and reduce the layers of middle managers.”
The Sovereignty Act
The other priority for her government is introducing the Sovereignty Act as the first bill in the legislature. She points to several proposed actions by the federal government – imposing a cap and trade system on Alberta’s oil and gas industry, imposing arbitrary caps on fertilizer, and asking to use Alberta police resources to confiscate firearms – that underpin the need for the legislation. “These are the kinds of things we need to push back against because Ottawa is firmly encroaching in our jurisdiction.”
“The business community has been waiting for us to fight back against Ottawa,” Smith continues. “The federal government has imposed hit after hit on our industries. We have lost tens of billions of dollars in investment. They’ve created a shattered investment climate, making it very difficult to attract dollars.”
It’s also why she sent Sonya Savage, Minister of Environment and Protected Areas, to COP27 in November. “The best delegation to stand up for Alberta is an Alberta delegation,” she declares. “I have no confidence that federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault is going to advocate for the great things we’re doing on the environment, on the hydrogen economy, on carbon technology, on the Pathways Alliance to net zero project. We need an Alberta voice at the table to let the world knows we are committed to meeting environmental targets for greenhouse gas and other emissions reductions.”
Doing so in a way that makes sense for Alberta’s economy and also provides energy security and affordability is what the Sovereignty Act is about. “We need to tell Ottawa to stay in its lane,” Smith continues bluntly. “It’s been encroaching on our exclusive right to develop our resources for far too long. We’re not going to allow that anymore.”
Her enthusiasm for Alberta’s energy industry is broad. In addition to traditional oil and gas, she highlights the potential for small modular nuclear, geothermal and LNG exports.
She’s also called for cooperation with other provinces on economic corridors and enhanced market access, for example, to the Port of Churchill on the Western shore of Hudson’s Bay in Manitoba. Churchill, Smith explains, provides an opportunity for Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba to work together to address energy and food security issues, including pipelines such as the First People’s Pipeline Project, improvements to existing rail lines and highways, and opportunities to increase the export of crops, fertilizers, critical minerals and other commodities.
Helping All Albertans
The rising cost of living for all Albertans is at the forefront of Smith’s concerns, an issue she blames on the NDP-Liberal Coalition in Ottawa. “They added more to the debt in this short term of the current Prime Minister than during all previous Prime Ministers combined,” she laments. “You cannot print that kind of money without it causing a general inflation crisis. Especially with all the supply chains disrupted during COVID.”
The first thing Ottawa should have done, she argues, is rescind or pause the carbon tax. Instead, the NDP-Liberal coalition has voted to triple it. “We’re going to see a 300 per cent increase on that.”
To address the issue, Smith’s government is putting together a package of supports to help reduce the cost of fuel, address the cost of home heating and electricity, ensure the food banks are supported and support the most vulnerable seniors. “I’ve appointed Matt Jones as our Minister of Affordability and Utilities for that reason, and I’ve tasked him with addressing the whole range of issues,” she explains. “We’ll bring through a package of reforms to help people as we go into the winter season, to make sure that their home heating and electricity bills are affordable.”
Smith is eager to work with the cities of Calgary and Edmonton on reducing red tape when it comes to land titles and building permits delays. She’s also endorsed the idea of leaving a greater proportion of property taxes generated within a city’s borders in the city for municipal projects.
In Calgary, she appointed MLA Ric McIver to assist in the negotiations for a new arena. “If we can lend a hand in assisting, it’s great,” she says. “I’m more interested in finding areas of agreement than disagreement.”
The second of five children who grew up in Calgary, Smith gained her conservative roots from her father, who’s own grandfather had fled communist-controlled Ukraine after World War I. After a grade eight social studies teacher relayed the virtues of communism to her class, Smith’s father took umbrage and went to speak with the teacher. “And then we started talking about politics around the dinner table,” she recalls. “I think the die was cast then. There wasn’t much chance I’d be a socialist after that.”
Years of preparation have given way to the present, and Smith is determined to succeed. “I’ve had some failures,” she reflects, “and when you have failures you spend a lot of time thinking about what you’d differently. One of the things that I want to do is always be in touch with everyday Albertans. Ralph Klein always warned about this ‘dome disease’, where you get a small circle of advisors and stop talking to real people. That was one of my errors in the past. I’m not going to let that happen again.”
“I had six years on talk radio,” she continues. “I love people. I love hearing directly from them about what’s impacting them. I think the job of politicians is to identify problems and solve them. I want to empower my MLAs to do that for their constituencies. I want to empower my Ministers to do that in their ministries. I think that will lead to better outcomes for all Albertans.”
If she can successfully lead the province out of COVID and into an era of economic, social and political prosperity, the job of Premier is Danielle Smith’s to keep. A challenging feat no doubt, but one she’s been preparing for her whole life. Now is her time to shine.