The machinations wracking Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and his party took a new twist Friday with the return of a former leader promising to vote against Kenney in his leadership review and then trying to take his job.
Danielle Smith, the former leader of the Wildrose party — which later folded into the current United Conservative Party — announced she is coming back to provincial politics for the UCP after a seven-year hiatus.
Smith said she plans to run in the southern constituency of Livingstone-Macleod and will vote no in the upcoming mail-in review of Kenney’s leadership.
If Kenney fails to get at least majority support in the vote — the results are to be announced May 18 — the party must hold a contest to pick a new leader.
“If the members vote that they want to go to a leadership contest … I would put my name in on that,” Smith said.
“I’d be quite delighted to represent the people of this province in that capacity.”
Smith said Kenney has made progress on job creation and the economy, but failed on some COVID-19 measures.
But most importantly, she said, Kenney is ignoring the voice of everyday Albertans in the party and the province.
“That process seems to be completely broken down.”
Smith left politics in 2015 and has since worked as a radio talk show host and in business.
She said one reason she came back was dismay over Kenney recently vilifying his opponents as “lunatics.” Another was anger over the UCP executive deciding last week to alter the leadership review from an in-person vote to a broader mail-in ballot — a move, she said, that appears to favour Kenney.
Kenney has said if he gets 50 per cent plus one vote in the contest, he will stay on as leader. Smith said leaders typically stick around if they get much higher approval ratings and that a bare majority is not a credible mandate to continue.
“If you cannot get a significant number of your own members behind you, ready to fight for you and with you, side-by-side going into the next election, you’re just not going to be able to beat the NDP,” she said.
Kenney, asked about Smith’s announcement, replied: “I’m not going to be distracted by voices of division.”
But Kenney later appeared to criticize Smith for allowing a candidate to run for the Wildrose in the 2012 election despite the candidate’s past comments urging gays and lesbians to repent or suffer eternally in Hell’s “lake of fire.”
“An Alberta conservative party was blown out in an election in (2012) because of a failure of leadership to block extremists from getting on the party ballot,” said Kenney.
Smith became leader of the Wildrose party in 2009 as it flourished as a clutch of disaffected floor-crossing Progressive Conservatives who believed their party and government had abandoned core values of financial stringency and grassroots participation.
Under Smith, the Wildrose became the Official Opposition to the PCs in 2012. But three years later, Smith and eight other members of the Wildrose crossed the floor to join the PCs under then-premier Jim Prentice.
It was a move done without grassroots party support and one Smith said she deeply regrets.
The move decimated the Wildrose, but it managed to survive under new leader and former Conservative MP Brian Jean to eventually merge with the PCs under Kenney in 2017 to form the UCP.
Jean is to be sworn in next week after winning a recent byelection for the UCP in the constituency of Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche.
Whether he will be allowed to sit in the UCP caucus is an open question as Jean has made it clear that he believes the party is unelectable in 2023 without change at the top.
Jean has also not discounted the possibility of running for leader.
Meanwhile, the UCP faces angry opposition from dozens of its riding association presidents and backbench caucus members over the leadership review changes.
“All of this speaks to the deep divisions, factions, fractures, within the UCP and the challenge of anybody who wants to try to lead this party to both appeal to the folks on the far right and those who might be more moderate conservatives,” said Lori Williams, a political scientist with Mount Royal University in Calgary.
“I increasingly wonder if that’s possible to do.”
– Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press