ANALYSIS | Albertans tire of fights with Ottawa, as Danielle Smith ups the ‘anti’ | CBC News


EDITOR’S NOTE: CBC News and The Road Ahead commissioned this public opinion research in mid-October, starting six days after Danielle Smith won the leadership of the United Conservative Party.

As with all polls, this one is a snapshot in time. 

This week, Albertans saw glimpses of the Trudeau government’s strategy for dealing with new Premier Danielle Smith and her devotion to getting tough with Ottawa, or at least Liberal Ottawa.

This early strategy is simply to show up, often with novelty-sized cheques in hand. While Smith won her rural byelection this week, the Liberals barnstormed the province to promote their fall economic statement.

Innovation Minister François-Philippe Champagne visited Edmonton to subsidize a hydrogen project; Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland spoke to the Calgary Chamber of Commerce; Seniors Minister Kamal Khera gave grants to seniors projects; and Calgary MP George Chahal announced support for high-speed internet.

The parry from the United Conservative Party premier seemed traditional: a public letter to the prime minister, reprising grievances about the carbon tax, the project assessment Bill C-69 and energy security. Smith’s promised next act, later this month, is the temperature-raiser: the untraditional (and constitutionally-questionable) Alberta Sovereignty Act.

But a funny thing’s happened over these last few years, as the UCP determined Jason Kenney’s anti-Ottawa act needed a more bellicose upgrade and installed Smith. Albertans have gotten less angry on federal issues, with a waning appetite for firewalls, fair deals and similar programs than at any point in the last four years.

At a boil? Medium-low heat, perhaps

It’s not that the findings from CBC News’ latest survey of Albertans shows an Ottawa love-in. Far from it, with 61 per cent of Albertans still believing the equalization program is unfair to Alberta, and 57 per cent feeling that other parts of Canada will get looked after before Alberta, no matter who’s in charge federally.

But after the years of pugilism from Smith and Kenney, along with a referendum about equalization, negative sentiments about those federal grants to worse-off provinces are lower than they were last year, or in 2020, or in the Notley government days of 2018. And this is the first time over that span fewer than 60 per cent of Albertans have felt other provinces were better taken care of, according to the poll of 1,200 Albertans by Janet Brown Opinion Research.

Pro-separatist sentiment is also down, which should please any federalist in Alberta, of any political stripe. Twenty per cent of respondents feel the province would be better off if they left Canada, down from 30 per cent when the same question was asked in April 2021.

Of course, no matter how Smith was accused of promoting separatism with her federal-law-defying Sovereignty Act by critics (including some people now in her cabinet), the premier has insisted that isn’t her game. The poll also shows that the policies she is keen on implementing aren’t much more popular than idealizing Alberta separation.

Smith campaigned on getting Albertans out of the Canada Pension Plan, but 60 per cent of Albertans oppose that idea and only 31 per cent agree with it. That’s down from 36 per cent in March 2020, when Kenney’s fair deal panel was busy reviving some of the old “firewall letter” ideas from a previous period of frustration with Ottawa Liberals.

Smith also plans to bring in an Alberta provincial police force and transition away from local RCMP detachments, showing more zeal for the idea than Kenney’s team had. That idea barely has the backing of one-quarter of Albertans, a lower number than a couple years ago.

The poll shows that a province-only pension scheme would especially stoke anxiety among Alberta seniors, a group the UCP cannot afford to agitate. Only 22 per cent of them support the idea of an Alberta Pension Plan.

Smith’s stance on policing is also offside with another key element of the UCP voter base — small-city and rural residents. People who live in those communities with RCMP detachments are as likely to disagree with the provincial police takeover as residents of Calgary and Edmonton, which already have their own police forces.

The poll didn’t ask about Smith’s Sovereignty Act; it’s hard to say exactly what it will do before Smith actually introduces this much-hyped legislation in late November. However, slightly less than half of Albertans (46 per cent) say that Alberta should work toward achieving more independence from the federal government — which means that at least there’s relatively better support for the broader aims of Smith’s federal agenda, even if it’s still a minority of people. 

But these are all plays to enthuse her political base. The poll reveals sharp partisan divides. Eighty-two per cent of UCP supporters want more Alberta sovereignty, while 16 per cent of NDP supporters do. For a provincial pension, 57 per cent of UCP voters like it, compared to nine per cent of New Democrat voters. Ditching the RCMP wins over 48 per cent of those on Team Smith, and eight per cent on Team Notley

Even Smith’s campaign slogan “Alberta First,” has that same sort of divisiveness. Half of United Conservative supporters say they feel more attached to Alberta than Canada, while only nine per cent of NDP voters do. Albertans generally are most likely to have equal attachment to both the country and province.

Smith seems to want to create more space between herself and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau than Kenney ever did, even if social distancing isn’t really a thing anymore. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

The challenge for Smith, in picking the UCP sides of these polarizing debates, is that there are more Albertans who prefer the NDP. She’s nine percentage points behind Rachel Notley’s party.

It’s also clear that problems with Ottawa aren’t a primary concern for Albertans, ranking behind health care, inflation and even the headaches induced by the provincial government. There have been signs the new premier will focus on those higher public priorities.

And yet, in her byelection victory speech, Smith directed some of her most fiery rhetoric in Ottawa’s direction: “Under Trudeau, Confederation has devolved into a toxic, divisive parent-child relationship.” But Albertans don’t seem to find it that toxic.

As the province eagerly waits to see how corrosive or flat the Sovereignty Act winds up being, let’s conclude by chewing over another unasked question. Is the problem that Smith is attaching herself to ideas that are growing more unpopular, or do these ideas become less palatable when they’re attached to Smith?

The CBC News random survey of 1,200 Albertans was conducted using a hybrid method between Oct. 12 and 30, 2022, by Edmonton-based Trend Research under the direction of Janet Brown Opinion Research. The sample is representative of regional, age and gender factors. The margin of error is +/- 2.8 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. For subsets, the margin of error is larger.

The survey used a hybrid methodology that involved contacting survey respondents by telephone and giving them the option of completing the survey at that time, at another more convenient time, or receiving an email link and completing the survey online. Trend Research contacted people using a random list of numbers, consisting of half landlines and half cellphone numbers. Telephone numbers were dialed up to five times at five different times of day before another telephone number was added to the sample. The response rate among valid numbers (i.e. residential and personal) was 16.3 per cent.

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