Premier Danielle Smith’s nine-minute televised message to the people of Alberta last night, which at least had the virtue of brevity, could be divided into roughly four parts:
1. Inflation is Justin Trudeau’s fault, but here’s a bunch of money, so for God’s sake vote for me.
2. I’m going to fix health care. (Sorry, no details.)
3. Sovereignty Act! (But Within A United Canada.)
4. Pay no attention to anything I said before. I was just trying to sell newspapers or something.
Is this a basis on which Premier Smith could overcome a deficit in the polls that puts the Opposition NDP led by Rachel Notley in solid majority government territory if the general election were held today?
Well, anything’s possible. This is, after all, the age of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. Still, it seems a bit far-fetched under the circumstances.
The Conservative Party of Canada under Stephen Harper had considerable success with boutique tax breaks aimed at soccer moms and similar narrow but influential demographic slices.
For Ms. Smith’s “affordability packaging” pitch, her brain trust seems to have decided on a cruder version of the same approach that adds up to a $2.4-billion list of pre-election giveaways.
She explained that her government will introduce an Inflation Relief Act in the Legislature next week, with payments to seniors, families with kids, and income support recipients; gasoline-tax cuts; re-indexed supports; electricity bill rebates, and so on. The payments will expire in six months, just after the next election.
Finance Minister Travis Toews, the old austerity hound, must wish he was back on the farm taking a walk in the snow. He probably thinks Smith’s plan, to borrow a phrase, is a black hole of vote-buying arrangements!
Not everything on the list is a bad idea, but contrary to the premier’s claims, there won’t really be something for everybody.
Some groups are definitely left out: “A family with 2 kids under 18 and a household income of $175,000 will get $1200,” tweeted University of Calgary political science professor Lisa Young after the speech. “A couple in their late 60s earning $175,000 will get $1200. A single person between 18 and 64 earning $30,000 will get nothing, unless they are an AISH recipient.”
In the past few days, there seemed to be a general buzz that Smith would opt for a Ralph Klein style straight-up cash giveaway to everyone.
So will last night’s complicated list of promises leave a lot of Albertans feeling left out and grumpy, or too distracted to figure out what their share of the loot is?
Then there’s Smith’s health care plan, important because there’s a near universal consensus the province’s health care system is a mess, and lots of fear based on recent things the premier has said about how we could fix it by introducing U.S.-style medicine.
Close to 60 per cent of voters, according to that recent poll, are said to think the United Conservative Party (UCP) is on the wrong track when it comes to health care – and that was before Smith’s plan to groom us for American-style health care with co-pays and user fees hit the news feeds.
But about all her so-called Healthcare Action Plan amounts to is a list of things she says she’s going to fix, like cutting Emergency Room wait times, improving ambulance response times, and reducing wait times for surgeries.
As University of Alberta political scientist Jared Wesley observed in a tweet last night, “I don’t know who needs to hear this, but ‘We’re going to make healthcare better!’ isn’t a plan.”
Then there was that Sovereignty Act again – which, like a dog with a bone, Smith just can’t leave alone, even though it’s scaring the hell out of a lot of voters. But wait, now it’s called the Sovereignty Within A United Canada Act, so we’re OK!
Finally, there was Smith’s glib assurance we need not worry our pretty little heads about all the stuff she said before because she was just being a cynical journalist.
I’m not making this up. Here’s what she actually said:
“I know that I’m far from perfect, and I’ve made mistakes. And having spent decades in media and hosting talk shows, I’ve discussed hundreds of different topics, and sometimes took controversial positions, many of which I’ve evolved and changed as I’ve grown and learned from listening to you.”
Readers will recall that Smith’s most controversial recent past position, on health care co-pays and user fees, was published in June 2021 and repeated several times since.
“I’m not a talk show host or a media commentator any longer,” she went on, a smug look playing on her face. “That’s not my job today. My job today is to serve each and every Albertan with everything I have, and to the best of my ability, however imperfect that may be at times. I must be humble, listen, and continue to learn from you.”
This actually looks better in print than it sounded. I recommend that readers watch the last moments of the video for themselves.
As the U of C’s Professor Young said in a Substack post yesterday, “Voters are confronted with the question of who Danielle Smith really is. The libertarian who advocates health care by go-fund-me or the free-spending premier who feels your inflation pain? The populist who flirted with separatism or the ‘Sovereign Alberta Within a United Canada’ patriot?”
It’s doubtful I’ve been listening to you can change enough minds to salvage Smith’s approval ratings by May 29.
So don’t count on getting to go to the polls until fall at least, maybe 2024.