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Don Martin: The lessons for Pierre Poilievre from the Alberta election

She should’ve won big in a walk, leaving the NDP in her dust as the orange-is-the-fade-to-black party.

But despite a booming economy and gushing bonanza of oil revenue, Danielle Smith eked out what was a squeaker win by Alberta’s usual landslide standards Monday and promptly declared she was a second coming of a Miracle on the Prairie.

The United Conservative Party leader was echoing Ralph Klein’s victory cry in the 1993 election when the then-rookie premier reclaimed the province for a tired and ailing Progressive Conservative party.

The 2023 result wasn’t analogous 30 years later, of course. Smith spent outrageously to buy her votes whereas Klein miraculously campaigned on deep spending cuts. And the saviour roles were reversed. The PC party was rescued by Klein as a fresh-faced premier while rookie Smith was a ballot box handicap saved by the party’s deep rural roots.

But, snapping back to current reality now that she’s the seventh premier since Klein retired in 2006, Smith’s win hands her the most starkly divided province confronting any premier in Canada.

With the seat count at 49-38, subject to recounts, the province has cleaved into an even deeper divide between the big city NDP strongholds of Calgary and Edmonton and the deep-blue UCP blanketing the rest of Alberta.

How Smith can corral the cats in her caucus will require a finesse which has rarely been seen in her political behaviour.

To bridge the chasm between her progressive urban MLAs and those owing allegiance to the hard-right Take Back Alberta movement, which is a Republican Party Freedom Caucus equivalent, she will be forced to operate something approximating a coalition government.

She will have to listen to extreme views without acting on them, keeping in mind that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will sound the alarm over Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre’s endorsement of Smith if she goes hard right-wing rogue.

And she’ll need to concentrate attacks on Alberta’s favourite target – specifically Ottawa -- to substantive concerns instead of symbolic gestures.

Trudeau’s environmental roadblocks to Alberta’s energy policy, liquified natural gas exports and the agriculture sector are serious economic impediments while talk of replacing the RCMP and Canada Pension Plan with made-in-Alberta alternatives are mostly western alienation fluff.


But, pulling back the lens a bit, there are cautionary lessons in this result for political leaders beyond Alberta in general and for Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre in particular.

Spending buys votes. In the budgetary run-up to the election, Smith unleashed a gusher of petrodollars on program spending and health care while building roads everywhere and a new arena in Calgary amid promises of more tax cuts to come. If Poilievre thinks tough-love austerity is the ticket to victory, he may be mistaken.

Campaigns matter. After entering the campaign as the longshot due to controversial positions and repeated gaffes, a calmed-down Smith seized the centre to ease the many fear factors orbiting her candidacy. It was a textbook case of political reinvention that overcame even the mid-campaign report of her causing a serious ethics breach.

This means Poilievre should be concerned that even the most sullied reputation – and by this I’m thinking of the maligned-in-every-direction Trudeau – can be reupholstered into winning material during the 30-day vote-seeking blitz.

Negative is not a positive. Poilievre should also learn from NDP Leader Rachel Notley’s mistaken preoccupation with unleashing Smith attack ads without a clear policy vision beyond hiking corporate tax hikes. By the time she realized her mistake and pivoted positive, it was too late.

To sum up, Alberta DNA has, once again, proven resilient enough to repress memories of this fractious governing party’s history and see voters gamble on a personality with a controversial track record which would render her unelectable in any other province.

The gaffe-plagued, anti-vaxxing, mandate-hating, Hitler-comparing, DeSantis-praising, ancestry-embellishing Smith has, despite long odds against her, been electorally resurrected from the political grave after a decade of mistakes, miscues and miscalculations.

Whether she is worthy or not, the premier can claim the win this week in what proves the obvious: With extremely few electoral exceptions, ballot box love in Alberta always means having to say you’re Tory.

That’s the bottom line.



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