Braid: 2023 a roller-coaster for Danielle Smith and Alberta politics, with no signs 2024 will be any different

Division and scandal marked the previous 12 months in Alberta politics

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From the opening bell last New Year’s Day, this has been a tumultuous, scandal-plagued, divisive year in Alberta politics.

Premier Danielle Smith can only hope 2024 doesn’t start the same way.

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She was so besieged in the first months that the NDP seemed likely to win the election set for May 29.

In January, Smith took a phone call during which street preacher Artur Pawlowski pressured her to drop charges against him for his COVID protest activities.

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That call echoed for months, reaching peak public frenzy when a phone video went public.

The premier not only sympathized with Pawlowski’s request (although uncomfortably), she immediately consulted by phone with her then-Justice minister Tyler Shandro.

An ethics investigation ensued with the election creeping ever closer.

On May 19, right in mid-campaign, commissioner Marguerite Trussler released her report.

It found Smith had been in conflict of interest because she talked to Shandro. At the same time, Trussler ruled there was no evidence that Smith’s office communicated with Crown prosecutors to get charges dropped.

Artur Pawlowski
Following his phone call with Premier Danielle Smith, street preacher Artur Pawlowski has started his own party. Postmedia file photo

The NDP could hardly have invented a script more likely to damage the premier on voting day.

And yet, the polls never showed that the scandal was seriously hurting Smith and the UCP.

Some people liked her stance against COVID prosecutions and didn’t see anything wrong with talking to Pawlowski. Many conservatives dismissed the scandal as media-driven.

Along the bumpy road to the election, Smith also directed the government to buy children’s pain medication because of a shortage.

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Five million bottles — from Turkey — cost the province $80 million. Delivery was much delayed. In the end, the whole experiment was an expensive flop.

Smith also fired the entire board of Alberta Health Services and installed Dr. John Cowell as official administrator. He was paid $360,000 for six months and then renewed for another term, same paycheque.

That was only the beginning of Smith’s uprooting of the AHS system.

The UCP government pledged that privatizing lab services with Dynalife would save taxpayers money. Photo by Larry Wong /Postmedia

April brought the first signs of a truly disastrous policy failure in health care — the inability of Dynalife Labs to provide timely testing at clinics in Calgary and across southern Alberta.

Late in 2022, the government had agreed to privatize southern testing, then in the hands of Alberta Precision Laboratories, the public body created by the NDP.

Dynalife had done that work successfully in Edmonton and the north for decades. But the expansion to southern Alberta was a fiasco, leaving patients unable to get simple lab appointments for weeks and even months.

The government threw support at Dynalife but the problems persisted.

August brought a dramatic conclusion; Health Minister Adriana LaGrange announced that Dynalife would leave lab testing entirely. The company was withdrawing not just from southern Alberta, but from Edmonton and the north.

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The UCP handed the whole field to Alberta Precision Labs. A policy designed to fully privatize provincial testing ended up with fully public testing.

This surely cost the government a great deal of money. But no details are public of the costs, process or what went wrong with the contract announced early in the year.

Alberta Pension Plan
This flyer promoting a potential Alberta pension plan was mailed out by the government in the fall of 2023. Photo by Supplied

Many other pre-election challenges were flying at Smith, mostly from her past. She promised nobody would ever pay personally for health care, but her own record showed she supported private payment, even writing a university paper about it.

She favoured an Alberta pension plan but abruptly stopped talking about it as the election approached. It was not included in the party platform.

By election day, some UCP supporters and even MLAs saw Smith as their biggest problem. But on May 29, the party captured 48 seats to the NDP’s 38.

One reason was surely the premier’s introduction of the Sovereignty Act the previous December. For her large anti-Ottawa base, this offset other issues.

In March, the government brought in a crowd-pleaser for many UCP adherents, a bill that claims to remove all firearms enforcement from federal control, even saying that federal officials cannot seize weapons in Alberta.

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Those measures locked down considerable support, but the biggest election factor may have been generous government aid as inflation ran high and personal expenses rose sharply.

The UCP stopped collecting 13 cents per litre of gasoline tax and extended that break to Dec. 31. It deferred some electricity costs, although the savings would have to be repaid when rates dropped.

The UCP led off its election campaign with a promise to lower personal income tax on income up to $60,000. This would save individuals more than $700 a year, and families more than $1,500.

Those pocketbook measures probably did the trick for the UCP, although the NDP hurt its own chances by promising to raise taxes on big companies. This was no campaign to talk about hiking anybody’s expenses.

Since the election, Smith has reverted to many of her previous plans.

The pension scheme is pressed resolutely by the government, with $7.5 million in advertising and a panel that technically consults but doesn’t care to meet Albertans in person.

Just before Christmas, Smith and Finance Minister Nate Horner said the income tax break will probably be phased in over several years, not applied all at once as most people expected from the original promise.

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Alberta Health Services building.
An Alberta Health Services building. Photo by Postmedia file photo

In November, she announced that giant Alberta Health Services will be responsible only for acute care rather than most of the provincial health system.

AHS will be co-equal with three new authorities overseeing primary care, continuing care, and mental health and addictions.

This strips AHS of overall provincial health responsibility that it assumed in 2008.

During the COVID pandemic, many people in rural Alberta blamed AHS for restrictions.

The premier shares that distaste, both for the reach of AHS and its bureaucratic padding.

Smith has also ramped up her attack on Ottawa climate measures, especially electricity regulations and the new emissions cap for the oil and gas industry.

She demands the resignation of federal Climate Change and Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault, saying he is “treacherous” and impossible to work with.

In late November, the government finally introduced a motion for action under the Sovereignty Act.

It empowers provincial officials not to co-operate with federal regulations regarding net-zero electricity.

This year began with Danielle Smith in trouble and ends with her firmly in charge. But tranquillity is not in the cards for 2024.

Don Braid’s column appears regularly in the Herald

X: @DonBraid

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