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Naheed Nenshi: This is a strange place for Alberta conservative supporters to be


I recently got an email from someone I don’t know on my private email address. He must have worked hard to find me, because he was troubled. “Can you shed some light on what the heck is going on with her party? Can we trust Danielle Smith in your opinion?” he wrote. “I have always been conservative…. But, with the crap I’m hearing, I have no idea who to believe any more.”

This is a strange place for Alberta conservative supporters to be. For decades, voting here was easy. The Progressive Conservatives were a huge tent, and most difficult policy issues were solved behind closed doors. But they usually got it right.


And Albertans were blessed with prosperity, low taxes, and an extraordinary quality of life. Sure, there were things to worry about: how come we spend more per capita on health care than any other province, but the system keeps getting worse? How much cronyism and corruption can we live with? Are we saving for the next generation, and are we tackling the big issues, including climate change, appropriately?

But now, everything has changed. The United Conservative Party seems to be pretty radical, and we’re not sure we can trust them to get things right. They blame everything on Ottawa and Rachel Notley, but they’ve also been in charge for 47 of the last 51 years, so it can’t all be Justin Trudeau’s fault, can it? And lots of things are just fine here: the economy is growing, people are moving here, and life in the cities remains relatively affordable compared to other places in Canada.

And yet …

Rents are going up, along with the price of groceries and gas. You can’t trust that an ambulance will come in time. There are not enough family doctors, and young doctors don’t want to train here. Young people in general are talking about leaving. And we can’t shake the feeling that our clinging to our way of life risks us being left behind in a world increasingly concerned about climate change. Shouldn’t we be leaders in the energy world rather than those fighting every possible change?

In the old days, we could trust that the premier would figure it out. Former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed knew the score: a conservative in the important ways, but focused on investing in culture and the arts, in education and in saving for the future. He fought fiercely not just for the Alberta that existed, but for the Alberta yet to be.

Former premier Ralph Klein was considerably rougher around the edges, but he was a normal guy interested in normal guy stuff. He was tough with the budget when needed, and generous when we had extra money around. He made lots of mistakes, but he owned up to them, and voters forgave him because they instinctively knew he had their best interests at heart.

Former premier Ed Stelmach was the same: a thoroughly decent man who just wanted to do good for others. Even when you disagreed with him, it was never from a place of anger.

But UCP Leader Danielle Smith is different. Like former premier Jason Kenney before her, she seems to be listening to a whole bunch of different voices, out there and in her ear, not those of my email correspondent or the people in his community. She apologizes like Klein did, saying she isn’t perfect and is still learning, and that we need to move on from stuff she said before, even If it was a few days ago. But it doesn’t feel authentic. Unlike Ralph, no one is sure she has our best interests at heart. And we’re not sure who she’s working for.

I’ve had a variant of this conversation with so many friends and acquaintances lately. They know this isn’t their party, but old habits die hard. It seems they have a few choices ahead of them, all of which require holding their noses. (I’m not the only one with this idea. The smart political scientist Lisa Young has written about this as well, using the classic political science text on Exit, Voice, and Loyalty)


First, hold your nose and vote for Smith, hoping the moderates in the party will control her or, even better, get rid of her. Many of her candidates are reportedly saying this at the doors: “We’re stuck with her, but we will get rid of her after the election.” There’s certainly some history here. Indeed, four of the last five conservative leaders were removed by their party after winning a majority government.

But to my conservative friends I say this is different. I regularly got calls in the last three years from moderate conservative MLAs and even cabinet ministers, expressing their deep misgivings about Kenney. But they would never act, mostly out of fear, sometimes out of comfort. In the end, the moderates detested Kenney but they let the hard right flank of the party take him down, with predictable results.

We’ve seen this movie before. Just look south. Not just at what happened when moderate republicans chose not to fight U.S. President Donald Trump, but more recently at the results of the 2022 midterm elections. The Republicans gained the house by the narrowest of majorities and many hard-right Trump-backed candidates either lost or squeaked through with the narrowest of margins.

But rather than the moderates learning from this near-death experience and retaking control of their party, the harder elements became even stronger, and are now firmly in control.

This is likely what will happen if Smith wins. In fact, it’s even worse than what happened with U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. While he is content to let Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene pull his strings, Danielle Smith IS Marjorie Taylor Greene in this scenario.

Compounding matters will be the makeup of her caucus. If the polls hold, she will have no seats in Edmonton and only a small handful in Calgary. The centre of power will be solidly in rural Alberta. There will be few to no moderates: most of them have run for the hills already, or are in tough to win their seats.

So this first strategy is unlikely to yield better government. It will simply strengthen Smith’s hand and will lead to much more of the chaotic unhinged government we’ve seen for the past seven months.

To be clear, there are some conservative voters who don’t mind. Some are voting directly for their pocketbooks, believing Smith will run a lean government and keep taxes low. Indeed, she has promised a broad-based tax cut. However, Smith, like Kenney before her, has been profligate in her spending, tabling the highest-spending budget in Alberta history and promising all kinds of giveaways, including $80 million (and counting) for off-brand children’s medications and up to $20 billion on a program to let polluters off the hook for abandoned wells.

She has also reversed decades of work on reducing Alberta’s reliance on oil and gas royalties, and her tax cut will exacerbate the situation. When the next oil bust comes (and it will) Alberta will be ill-prepared to weather the storm.


The second choice for disgruntled conservative voters is to hold their noses and stay home. For those who can’t bring themselves to vote NDP but can’t support a leader who has compared them to followers of Hitler, who took three days to condemn one of her candidates who compared trans children in schools to poop in a cookie batch, who has been found to have violated ethics rules, and so much more, might just not vote at all. (Third parties are not really a factor in this election);

There is some anecdotal evidence of this: driving down a very wealthy street in a traditionally conservative neighbourhood this week, I was struck not by the small number of NDP signs on people’s lawns but by the lack of UCP signs in what would normally be an ocean of blue.


The third choice is to hold their noses and vote NDP. This is a tough leap for many. In Alberta, voting is dynastic. People have voted the same way for decades and generations. People like me, who vote fluidly depending on the context and the local candidates, are rare. For many, like my email correspondent, the thought of voting NDP is difficult. Some think that if they switch their vote in this election, that deep down inside they are betraying their principles (or their grandfathers). They are concerned that this makes them NDP supporters forever.

But for some conservatives, this is exactly what their party needs. The only thing that can fix it, to them, is some time in the woodshed and some time for critical reflection. Some, like former deputy premier Thomas Lukaszuk, are urging fellow conservatives to “lend” their vote to Rachel Notley. This isn’t forever, they argue, and Notley can’t do that much harm in four years. Indeed, she will do less harm than Smith in that time.

Others argue that Smith isn’t a conservative at all. In a recent piece, Harper strategist and co-author of the infamous Alberta Firewall letter, Ken Boessenkool, teams with political scientist Jared Westey to make this case passionately. They say:

Danielle Smith shows little understanding or respect for the rules and norms that guide our democracy.

Not knowing whether Canadian premiers have the pardon or clemency powers of U.S. presidents and governors is unfathomable. Framing the treatment of Alberta by Ottawa as on par with Canada’s treatment of First Nations is unconscionable. Knowingly eroding our democratic institutions is unconservative.

Her anti-scientific support for health-care quackery places her alone among government leaders in Canada. And then there was her extremely curious advice to Western powers urging neutrality and then later repeating oddly Putinesque talking points on the invasion of Ukraine.

In a recent panel appearance, my former city council colleague, Jeromy Farkas, a staunch conservative whose grandmother fought Communists in Hungary, did something no one else has ever done: rendered me speechless. He made an eloquent pitch on why people who call themselves conservative cannot support Smith.

It remains to be seen if folks will listen to Farkas, or which variety of holding their nose they will go for. For me it reminds me of that very popular Canadian coffee shop chain. It’s not that great, the food is getting worse, and it’s not that cheap. Plus, it hasn’t been owned by Canadians in years. Yet we all keep going, despite there being better options. Will Albertans finally try some new coffee?

Former Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi wrote this opinion column for CTV News




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