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Lunatics take over UCP asylum
Thursday's off-kilter leadership debate solidified Danielle Smith's frontrunner status
Three United Conservative Party leadership candidates — including the clear frontrunner — spoke at a bizarre forum co-hosted by the separatist Alberta Prosperity Project and the far-right Rebel News media outlet Thursday night.
For an event called “Will the UN 2020 Agenda Come to Alberta?” there was relatively little talk of globalist conspiracies.
Candidates Danielle Smith, Brian Jean and Todd Loewen took turns trying to prove that they were the most not-quite-separatist. It’s worth noting off the bat that Loewen’s name was misspelled on his podium, giving you an adequate sense of how serious the debate was.
There’s a strong case to be made that this event doesn’t deserve attention, and I’m sympathetic to that. However, since it’s likely the next premier was in attendance, it would be an error not to cover it.
The event’s original poster advertised all seven leadership contestants’ participation. When I questioned moderate candidates Leela Aheer and Rajan Sawhney on Twitter about their attendance, Aheer’s campaign manager Sarah Biggs said the team hadn’t yet responded to the invitation and that it was a no from them. Sawhney also said she wouldn’t attend.
Then, last week, establishment candidates Travis Toews and Rebecca Schulz announced they were pulling out largely because the APP has floated the idea of creating its own political party to rival the UCP.
"I should have done what normal people would do, and Google this group," Toews campaign co-chair Chris Warkentin told CBC News.
The debate rules would have candidates alternate having the first crack at answering each question. But the moderators couldn’t help themselves, and in between answers they would ask new questions for the next candidate in line.
Smith was clearly the star of the event, where she felt right at home. These are her people, and she’s bringing them into the UCP fold.
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While I wrote earlier this week about the danger posed by a Premier Danielle Smith and how digging up all her looniest remarks isn’t going to cut it as an NDP electoral strategy, it’s nonetheless important to track what she’s promising to do once she’s in charge of the province.
What viewers witnessed Thursday was the overton window in Alberta politics shift far to the right.
In her opening remarks, Smith painted a picture of an Alberta that has grown weak and passive in recent years in the face of alleged federal encroachment.
She vowed to openly politicize the province’s bureaucracy as part of her signature Alberta Sovereignty Act, which she said on a darkly authoritarian note “ensures that we are putting our civil service on notice — all 240,000 of them — that every single decision they make must be put through the lens of putting Alberta first.”
In response to a question about whether Alberta needs a Truth and Reconciliation Commission for its COVID response, just like there was for post-apartheid South Africa, Smith said this proposal doesn’t go far enough.
She said she would fire the entire board of Alberta Health Services and the College of Physicians and Surgeons to huge applause, describing the bodies as “lawless”. Smith would follow this up with a “public review process.”
“How many people lost loved ones they couldn’t say goodbye to? How many people watched their loved ones die of loneliness in long-term care facilities?” she said while visibly tearing up.
I don’t think loneliness is what people in LTC died of, but it is precisely this faux empathy that explains Smith’s danger and appeal.
She reiterated her call to give every Albertan $300 “to just begin the process of … buy[ing] the healthcare of their choice” through an Uber-like app.
Smith singled out the University of Alberta’s Parkland Institute — a left-leaning think tank — for opprobrium, vowing to ensure they receive no government funds for “churning out research reports that are negative towards our industry.”
There’s nobody in Alberta more talented at spinning a yarn of bullshit than Danielle Smith, which is precisely the problem.
There were a couple moments that showed Smith’s potential cross-partisan appeal, which should be particularly concerning to those who want to see her defeated.
She said the federal Bill C-11, which would bring online news outlets under the aegis of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, would censor not only Rebel News and other like-minded outlets, but also left-leaning independent media, specifically naming Canadaland, National Observer and The Tyee.
Smith’s solution, which she said would make Alberta a “bastion of [press] freedom,” was characteristically bonkers. “Why don’t we get Elon Musk to use his StarLink system and we’ll get these media outlets to set up here, where they’ll broadcast to the rest of the country?” she asked.
Responding to a particularly vile transphobic line of questioning from one of the moderators, Smith revealed herself to not be in line with the hard-right on trans rights, although her response gave her plenty of wiggle room:
I have a non-binary family member and I believe these decisions are personal and should not be debated in public. We shouldn’t be making any child feel like the issues they’re struggling with is something that’s a political football.
I think the issue that we’re facing … is at what point do you start having a conversation about sexuality with kids?
She proposed teaching kids about “bad touching” in K-6, “how babies are made so they don’t inadvertently make a baby” in junior high, and then issues of same-sex attraction and gender identity in high school.
This was a stark contrast with Jean and Loewen, both of whom believe schools shouldn’t teach sex-ed and that trans people are simply confused.
With her contrarian smorgasbord of positions and career as a broadcaster, I can’t help but liken a Premier Danielle Smith to a Premier Joe Rogan.
Jean suffered from a bad case of runner-up syndrome, attacking the front-runner while struggling to distinguish himself.
“Don’t forget any of the Canadian flags on the convoys. They weren’t Alberta flags,” Jean said in a relatively clever anti-separatist manoeuvre.
Jean, who wants Alberta to be the “MVP of confederation,” said that if Alberta doesn’t get what it wants from Ottawa in 18 months, he would consider separation. This is a slight contrast from Smith, who wants to begin the process of threatening separation immediately.
He took many subtle digs at Smith. Earlier on, he said he would never even muse about introducing a provincial sales tax without mentioning Smith, who did just that in a September 2020 op-ed.
After a question near the end of the forum asking what the candidates most admire about NDP leader Rachel Notley, Jean brought up out of nowhere how he had to rebuild trust within the Wildrose Party as leader after Smith abandoned the party and crossed the floor to the PCs.
Clearly, he had been saving that line and was worried he wouldn’t have a chance to use it.
Jean also pointed out the inconsistency of Smith touting her endorsement of former justice minister Kaycee Madu, who now says he was opposed to the COVID policies he helped impose. “Is she going to fire him too? He put fences around my churches,” Jean said.
Jean mentioned his dead son Michael three times, blaming his undoubtedly tragic death at 24 from lymphoma on AHS bureaucrats. It’s not my place to tell Jean how to grieve, but the repeated invocations in public debate came off as crass and opportunistic.
Say what you will about Smith, but she’s a charismatic, compelling speaker — the problem is what comes out of her mouth.
One thing the forum solidified, however, is that Loewen, who was kicked out the UCP caucus for calling on Premier Jason Kenney to resign, is a total lightweight.
He began his remarks by saying he wants to expose the World Economic Forum as the “laughingstock they are,” which seems to be more than a bit outside the wheelhouse of Alberta’s premier.
He called for the government to investigate alleged foreign funding of environmentalist NGOs in response to a question about what he would do with the recommendations of the Allan Inquiry, which did just that.
Otherwise, there’s not much he said to distinguish himself from either Jean or Smith.
The forum no doubt solidified Smith’s status as front-runner, but it will be interesting to see whether opposition to Smith will solidify around Jean or an establishment candidate.
Not that it ultimately matters. Smith is using her communication prowess to set the leadership agenda with her bold — albeit batshit — policy proposals while all the other candidates are left in her dust. The UCP is Danielle Smith’s party now.
This story has been updated to reflect the fact that Brian Jean is not in fact a charismatic, compelling speaker. The Orchard regrets this error.
Edited by Marino Greco