Danielle Smith hosts Alberta's largest call-in talk show: the United Conservative Party
Good talk radio hosts understand the show doesn’t belong to the host, it belongs to the listeners
I usually share Daveberta columns on Thursdays or Fridays, but with all the news coming out of last weekend’s UCP AGM, I wanted to share my thoughts earlier this week. Enjoy!
Any good talk radio host understands that the show doesn’t belong to the host, it belongs to the listeners. And if this past weekend’s annual general meeting is any indication, talk radio host-turned-Premier Danielle Smith might be taking a similar approach as leader of the United Conservative Party.
Aside from a nod to protecting parental rights during her keynote speech, Smith largely stood out of the way as more than 3,700 delegates packed into Calgary’s BMO Centre to vote on party policy and elect a new executive board. It was an impressive crowd and probably the largest provincial political convention in Alberta’s history.
Smith’s first AGM as the leader of the re-elected UCP government was a sharp contrast from her final convention as leader of the Wildrose Party back in 2014.
During that convention nine years ago Smith hailed a motion that affirmed the rights for everyone regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, and other differences as a triumph and a symbol of a mature party ready for government. She faced a stunning rebuke from Wildrose members who voted 148-109 against that very policy statement.
A month later, Smith and a dozen other Wildrose MLAs abandoned the party and crossed the floor to Premier Jim Prentice’s Progressive Conservatives.
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Fast-forward to 2023 and Premier Smith was nowhere to be seen in the policy debates this year, leaving party members organized by a burgeoning cottage industry of right-wing political action groups to embrace a long list of political culture war policies imported from the United States.
UCP members voted in favour of policies opposing students using different pronouns without their parents permission (a policy aimed at transgender youth), eliminating diversity, equity and inclusion offices in post-secondary institutions, banning of using race as a factor in post-secondary admissions, and banning transgender women from being placed in women’s correctional facilities. Other policies passed included opposing the use of electronic voting machines in elections and banning municipal planning of 15-minute cities.
These aren’t exactly top of mind issues for regular Albertans.
“I’ve covered nearly every major conservative meeting held in Alberta since 1978. There has never been one remotely like this, not even the angry Wildrose sessions in the early teens,” wrote Postmedia columnist Don Braid, the Dean of Alberta political columnists. “To find an equally ardent group of social conservatives, we probably have to go back to Social Credit before 1971.”
Some political scientists will be quick to tut-tut anyone who says party policy isn’t the same as government policy, but I feel this is a misread of the mood of an extremely activist UCP membership who might not have as much patience for the established political norms.
One Daveberta subscriber who was at the convention emailed me over the weekend saying they see the policies passed at the AGM not as a “wish list” from the party but a “to do list” for the government.
And they aren’t alone in that opinion.
“Those who have identified the reality that Party Policy is not REQUIRED to be made into law, and that our legislators have leeway to decide what to bring to the House, we've also shown that if our elected officials do NOT make law to our benefit, as we demand, we will replace them too, because we will show up! Am I correct, Jason?,” wrote Chris Scott, CEO of the right-wing Alberta Prosperity Project and owner of the Whistle Stop Cafe, a restaurant in the Hamlet of Mirror that made headlines for refusing to follow COVID public health measures.
“Veni, vidi, vici,” were the Caesarean-inspired words tweeted by Take Back Alberta executive director David Parker after it was announced that a group of candidates endorsed by TBA swept the party’s executive board elections for the second year in a row, solidifying the right-wing PAC’s control over the party’s governing body.
Olds-Didsbury-Three Hills constituency association President Rob Smith (no relation to the Premier that I’m aware of) was elected in the hotly contested presidential vote. Smith defeated Calgary-Fish Creek constituency association President Jack Redekop by a margin of 109 votes on the third ballot. Perceived frontrunner and Calgary establishment favourite Rick Orman placed third and was eliminated on the second ballot.
The only Jason Kenney-era board member running for re-election, Jessica Arsenault, was soundly defeated by Albert Biel, a party activist from the Strathcona-Sherwood Park riding who was endorsed by Parker’s TBA and was a member of Orman’s Unity Slate.
Not your father’s big-tent Progressive Conservative Party
It would be a mistake to believe that some of the culture war politics witnessed on the convention floor don’t extend to the UCP Caucus.
And rookie Chestermere-Strathmore UCP MLA Chantelle de Jonge used one of her first chances to speak in the Legislative Assembly to decry the scary dangers of the left-wing woke culture creature during her response to the Speech from the Throne:
“The woke culture of progressives, which includes radical environmentalism and an obsession with identity politics. Woke progressive culture is a creature that feeds on division sewn by invented grievances. It is a creature that reduces and diminishes people to narrow identities. It is a creature that opposes freedom of expression in the public square and in our schools and universities. It is a creature that scorns science, faith, and hope. Woke progressive culture is a creature that is hostile to the core traditions of Albertans and who we are.”
This isn’t your father’s big-tent Progressive Conservative Party, that’s for sure (that’s the centrist mantle Rachel Notley’s NDP tried so hard to grab in the last provincial election)., that Smith might now be a voice of reason and moderation in the UCP.
If there’s one big change I’ve heard from UCP MLAs over the past six months, it’s the dramatic improvement in communication between the Premiers Office and the UCP caucus. One MLA described it as a drastic change from Kenney’s time as party leader, when a lot of MLAs felt they had no relationship or connection to their leader. It’s not too surprising though. Anyone who has met Smith or listened to her on her former radio show will admit she is a good listener.
How well those new open channels of communications with MLAs hold as Smith’s government pushes forward with controversial policies like leaving the Canada Pension Plan (not mentioned in her AGM keynote speech) and the policies approved by party delegates will be telling.
Smith holds more than a few political views that straddle the fringe but, even as her political career was being charred by the Lake of Fire, I’ve never believed she was a social conservative. But she is a shrewd and shameless politician who has a very good understanding that many social conservatives activists helped her win her the UCP leadership in 2022.
Unlike former premier Kenney, who spent most his career trying to embody social order and conservative traditions, Smith knows it was an unruly and raw emotional reaction to Kenney that got her to where she is today - in the Premier’s Office.
Like the cranky listeners who would call into Smith’s show during her years in political exile hosting talk radio, she understands that her show only works if it belongs to them. In that sense, she isn’t so much a voice of reason as much as the host of the province’s largest call-in talk show: the United Conservative Party.