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Jared Wesley and Ken Boessenkool: Danielle Smith is not a conservative
Her politics amount to libertarian-laced populism, directly opposed to the sort of principled, incrementalist politics Albertans have had before.
To be conservative … is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.
— Michael Oakeshott
By: Jared Wesley and Ken Boessenkool
Conservatism is as much a mode of politics as it is a coherent belief system. Rather than attaching themselves to notions like liberalism, libertarianism, order and liberty, most Albertans treat their conservatism as a matter of temperament instead of an ideology.
Which takes us to the current moment.
Danielle Smith is not a temperamental conservative. Indeed, she is rarely an ideological conservative. Instead, her politics amount to libertarian-laced populism, directly opposed to the sort of principled, incrementalist politics Albertans have appreciated from conservative governments in the past.
The familiar and tried
Conservatives believe in slow change, in preserving institutions like community, faith, family and, yes, government. Conservatives believe in social evolution, not social revolution. And they support the institutions that preserve peace, order and good government.
Of course, some level of populist skepticism is healthy; elites need to be held accountable. But when populism devolves into antinomianism — a rejection of laws or norms — we end up removing not just the gatekeepers, but the gates themselves. This institutional breakdown threatens the stability conservatives crave in our politics.
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.
The Sovereignty Act is Exhibit A. The premier’s lead advisor and campaign co-chair among them, its drafters initially designed the Act to be unconstitutional. As originally drafted, the law shifted powers out of Ottawa, the Alberta legislature, and the courts into the Premier’s Office. Notwithstanding their backdown, this radical approach was designed to upend our constitutional order in one fell swoop.
According to the authors of the Free Alberta Strategy, the Sovereignty Act “provides a path to provincial sovereignty and self-determination.” In short, law was designed to be an insurrection by (il)legal means. This is not evolution. This is revolution.
Fact and reality
Conservatives are realists. They base their worldviews on facts and they respect the value of expertise in helping to define and achieve the common good. Danielle Smith has demonstrated little concern for these principles.
Her anti-scientific support for health-care quackery places her alone among government leaders in Canada. Her promotion of arguably anti-Semitic conspiracy theories has raised serious questions about her judgment and the ability of her advisors to provide her with a factual basis to make important decisions. 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.
The limited, sufficient, convenient and present
Conservatives feel government should only do what only government can do. This means supporting limited government, community-based programs, prudent budgeting, and long-term planning.
By contrast, Danielle Smith’s approach — her inconsistent libertarianism — has been to grow government indiscriminately. Hers is the largest cabinet in the history of the province. Her 2023 budget reversed many of her party’s fiscal gains, boosting spending by 10 per cent. Even traditional allies criticize the plan as unconservative. It is telling that the most temperamental conservative in her cabinet presented it … and then promptly departed.
Conservatives are also guardians against government overreach. Smith’s choice to threaten and limit journalists brushes aside freedom of the press. Her intervention with an individual facing criminal charges shows a casual disregard for legal and political norms. And her approach to involuntary addictions treatment appears to trample on Albertans’ Charter rights.
Near versus distant
Conservatism is more than a blind faith in individualism and personal responsibility. It includes a communal spirit that sees value in protecting the most vulnerable members of our communities.
Smith has made blanket denunciations of even the most basic kinds of protections for vulnerable populations should we find ourselves in another pandemic. In fact, her initial comments that unvaccinated Canadians are “the most discriminated-against group I’ve seen in my lifetime” was not just revealing, but deeply disturbing.
Smith has made no secret of her pro-choice and other socially progressive views. Which is fine so far as it goes, but support from social conservatives who have traded away abortion for a populist distaste over wearing masks at church does not make Smith a social conservative.
And one would expect any leader with a conservative pro-family bias to move heaven and earth to address dangerous shortages of OBGYNs in one of Alberta’s larger cities.
Nearly half of all Albertans identify as conservative but do not align with Smith’s inconsistent libertarian-laced populism. Her politics are out of step with theirs.
The coming campaign will therefore be a real test of what it means to vote conservative.
Jared Wesley is professor in the department of political science at the University of Alberta. Ken Boessenkool is founding partner of Meredith Boessenkool Policy Advisors and has worked for Preston Manning, Ralph Klein, Stockwell Day, Stephen Harper, Ric McIver and Rajan Sawney.
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