Jen Gerson: Danielle Smith and her windfall of luck (and poor Jason Kenney!)
Imagine steering Alberta through the tail end of the bust and two years of COVID to be rejected by your own party just as the province sails into yet another oil windfall.
By: Jen Gerson
Alberta premier Danielle Smith is lucky.
Never before has such natural charisma and sheer opportunity been so fortuitously combined in a single politician. That Smith has sometimes squandered her good luck can't be disputed, but she has always managed to recover.
Listening to Smith's State of the Province address on Tuesday, I couldn't help but indulge an unexpected thought: Poor Jason Kenney. Imagine steering Alberta through the tail end of the bust and two years of COVID, to be rejected by his own party just as the province sails into yet another oil windfall.
Smith is enjoying no honeymoon period. Polls conducted by the CBC suggest that the NDP is leading 47 points to the UCP's 38; Smith's radio-talk-show-host history of wild rhetoric and sometimes extreme ideas are proving entirely off putting among a base of moderate, suburban Calgarians whom she will need to win over ahead of the next election in a mere six months.
Smith has two major advantages, however.
The first, and most considerable, is a giant bucket of money.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine, the price of oil is back in the realm of the stratospheric. In a matter of months, Alberta has watched its deficits bounce from deep red to historic highs. The province expects a $13-billion surplus in the 2022-23 fiscal year, and may do as well again in the year to come. While much of that will go toward paying down the debts incurred during the lean times, the result has left Smith with an extraordinary incumbent advantage, and one that she clearly plans to use.
On Tuesday, she announced a raft of affordability measures. Each family with a child earning less than $180,000 can expect $600 per kid over the next six months. Those dependent on AISH, the Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped, can also expect a bonus. Welfare programs will be re-indexed to inflation; rebates for electricity and natural gas will be plentiful. And fuel taxes will be suspended until the affordability crisis is over. It's not quite "Dani Bucks" — in 2005, then-premier Ralph Klein offered a one-time Prosperity Bonus of $400 per Albertan to re-distribute surplus wealth — but it's only a little short of that.
Is this the right way to spend the money? Probably not. Is it weird to not means-test a payment to a family making $179,999? Yup. But is it good politics? Probably. Like I said, Smith is lucky. What would Kenney have given to have this much cash gushing into the provincial coffers six months ago?
Don't expect the offerings to stop there, either. Smith has an electorate to soothe. She has to convince a sizable chunk of ordinary Albertans that she is both credible and reasonable, and nothing can accomplish that task faster than strategically applied surplus billions. Already, Smith has mused about an LRT line to Calgary's airport. She's also said she wants to support a plan to salvage the Calgary arena deal.
Meanwhile, Smith has been trying to change some channels, as we say. She’s engaged in the age-old pasttime of blaming Ottawa for Alberta's problems, for one thing. Our inflation crisis, she said, is the direct result of the federal government's overspending, an highly debatable proposition given the state of the global economy and attendant supply chain issues.
But there’s also some humility here, not just blaming others.
In her Tuesday address, Smith sought to circumvent current and future criticism stemming from her, uh, professional history. From her sometimes kooky theories on health care, her embarrassing remarks on Ukraine, and her claims that the unvaccinated had been the victims of a unique and historic discrimination, Smith's opening weeks as premier have not cemented a reputation as a careful and thoughtful public figure.
During her speech, she acknowledged this. She said she was “not a talk-show host or media commentator any longer,” and that while she has views on hundreds of subjects have evolved by listening to Albertans.
“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,” she said.
She is displaying a willingness to listen and admit fault that takes notes directly from the Ralph Klein school of political leadership. This is the kind of stuff that Albertans absolutely lap up, and Smith knows it.
Don't put bets on Alberta politics. Danielle Smith is on course for one of two outcomes; she is either going to burn out and be relegated to perpetual opposition when the province next goes to the polls, or she's going to be premier for a generation.
It can really go either way. Who knows what’ll happen tomorrow. I don't know if she can maintain the course, or for how much longer the oil windfall will hold, or what bonkers radio interview she did years ago will resurface next, but, goddamn, don't underestimate this woman. She's lucky.
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