Don Martin: Danielle Smith is my political newsmaker of 2023

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Her mouth runs habitually rogue, her policies are often renegade and her connection to Ottawa is all resistance all the time.

For those reasons and a few more, Alberta Premier Danielle Smith is my newsmaker politician of the year.

This is not to say Smith’s basking in a glowing political honeymoon following her United Conservative Party election win in May, which had appeared set for an easy win by former NDP premier Rachel Notley a year earlier.

Her action plan since has wonky elements and not all of it is swooning the electorate, which fits with the political theory that the first half of a four-year mandate is for trial and error while the last half is for damage control.

Her advocacy for Alberta to leave the Canada Pension Plan, taking half of its assets with it, freaked out Ottawa and her fellow premiers and could be doomed by negative public opinion at home.

She has ripped up the province’s health care organization chart and fired the system’s top bureaucrats, a plan to stabilize acute care which could decide her future re-electibility.

UCP Leader Danielle Smith makes her victory speech in Calgary on Monday May 29, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

And then there’s Smith’s specialty – declaring multiple-front war on Ottawa with particular wrath reserved for federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault, whom she accuses of “treachery.”

To fight federal clean electricity regulations, which aim to make the sector net-zero by 2035, she has unleashed the Alberta Sovereignty Act.

It would order provincial and municipal authorities not to follow the federal regulations. But those regulations haven’t been finalized yet and probably won’t be forthcoming if the Trudeau government loses the 2025 federal election.

In almost every sense, notwithstanding that the Act itself is likely unconstitutional, the move is mostly symbolic.

But it’s the comeback that makes her seven months as elected premier such a spectacle.

After spending much of the pre-election period apologizing for her controversial history of hot-headed words and actions, Smith has set out to bridge the divide between severely normal Albertans and the rebel alliance of anti-COVID mandate types who fly under the Take Back Alberta banner.

It’s no easy task. She owes her UCP leadership to the rebels and her mandate to the masses.

To walk that tightrope, Smith has mostly gagged her earlier foot-in-mouth tendencies, given up on the silly stuff like creating a provincial police force and protecting the unvaccinated under human rights legislation. And she made plenty of hay from a Supreme Court ruling that the feds overstepped their jurisdiction in environmental legislation.

Her strange mix of pragmatism and shock politics fits with the long, strange trip that’s marked her career. It started with her days as a controversial school trustee without kids to outspoken Calgary Herald columnist to no-holds-barred radio talk show host and into the political mainstream as pro-choice leader of the PC breakaway Wildrose Party.

Then came her disastrous defection to join the Progressive Conservatives in 2014, a botched effort to reunite the right which ended with the PCs rejecting her as a candidate for the next election.

At that point, Danielle Smith was finished, a toxic personality without a political future.

But fate had different ideas as Jason Kenney’s UCP leadership imploded in 2022 and Take Back Alberta members crowned Smith as his (hard) right replacement.

Now with four years to make or break her reputation in a province with a sizzling-hot economy, Smith’s showing intense zeal for remaking Alberta into her own image, be that good or bad, and making sure she’s imposible to ignore.

After all, it took considerable gall for her to attend Dubai’s COP28 global climate change conference this month to defend oil and gas production, a move akin to hauling a truckload of chainsaws into a national park’s old-growth forest.

Through it all, this rebel-minded premier has achieved middle-of-the-pack popularity in a recent Angus Reid poll on voter approval of Canada’s leaders.

If getting Ottawa’s attention was her mission, consider it accomplished. And fighting the feds is always a winning strategy in Alberta.

Danielle Smith’s no repeat of Ralph Klein’s famous 1993 Miracle on the Prairie victory, but her resurrection 30 years later is impressive enough to make her the year’s most interesting political personality.

That’s the bottom line.

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