Last month, United Conservatives crowned a former media figure as Alberta’s premier for the first time since Ralph Klein.
Except, unlike Danielle Smith, Klein wasn’t just a few months out of the microphone-and-interviews racket when he began running Alberta in 1992. He’d spent a dozen years in politics, as Calgary mayor then provincial environment minister.
And Klein was a TV reporter, rather than the talk show host and pundit that Smith has been at Corus Radio and the Calgary Herald, so he didn’t leave a long trail of provocative opinions and recorded beliefs for critics and political watchers to scrutinize, and to hold up against the premier’s current positions.
Well, scrutinize no longer. The public has been alerted by Danielle Smith herself: “I know I’m not a talk show host or media commentator any longer.”
In Smith’s televised address to the province Tuesday evening, she took time after promising $2.4 billion in direct payments and rate breaks to most Albertans to address “something personal.” Namely, a big section of the curriculum vitae that helped her get elected.
“I know that I am far from perfect, and I made mistakes,” Smith said into the camera from her office desk. “And having spent decades in media and hosting talk shows, I discussed hundreds of different topics, and sometimes took controversial positions, many of which have evolved or changed as I have grown and learned from listening to you.”
She stressed she knows what her job is: to be premier, not pundit, to “serve Albertans with everything I have,” and to “be humble, listen, and continue to learn from you.”
When soundbites bite back
It was an act of contrition, albeit completely nonspecific contrition for an untold swath of Smith’s recorded observations and wisdom over the years.
Smith and her team know her hot-take past carries numerous political liabilities and landmines, several of them from the most recent phase of her commentary life, after she quit commercial radio for alternative and less-regulated formats offering more latitude to speak with doctors that the medical mainstream accuses of spreading COVID misinformation, and rebroadcasting info from other unseemly online realms.
She’d warned about this previously, the night she won the UCP leadership, that “detractors will dredge up old statements and mistakes from the past,” and use “cancel culture.” Now again, with people watching her as premier, Smith bids to broadly inoculate herself from the great treasury of old Smith clips and soundbites.
After Smith last month had to walk back comments about the unvaccinated being discriminated against and some admittedly “ill-informed” views about Ukraine, her team felt they had to apply spot treatment of that pesticide again earlier this week. The NDP had done some of that dredging — various Smith commentary from the last two years about adding more user pay into the public health system for things like doctor checkups, perhaps through a variation of the health spending accounts that Smith currently promises to help individuals pay for health expenses the system doesn’t cover, like psychology and naturopathy.
Smith’s team took to Twitter to brand this as Rachel Notley’s spin, a “myth busted.”
But the NDP’s source material wasn’t glib remarks from online videos — it was a 14-page essay Smith wrote in 2021 for the University of Calgary School of Public Policy. Well-considered scholarship, which just so happens to be squarely at odds what Notley and Smith alike deem is politically palatable in today’s Alberta.
It’s not just the scattered thoughts of her past. This is who Danielle Smith is, or at least has been up until this moment— a Margaret Thatcher-worshipping libertarian who absorbs ideas from all manner of different corners, who likes to cast doubt on “mainstream narrative” and what’s established as the consensus.
Meanwhile, the premier brings up constantly that federal environment minister Steven Guilbeault used to be a tower-scaling Greenpeace activist. That was in 2001. Smith would have us believe that this Liberal leopard cannot change his spots, while Albertans need not to pay heed to her words from last summer.
Wiping the slate clean, please
Of course, if everything pokey or wrongheaded a media commentator has ever said should be constantly held against him, the whole analytical industry would crumble. Observers need not assume that everything Smith said in her long journalistic or advocacy career is necessarily what she eternally believes, or that it forms a hidden agenda lurking behind a premier’s pre-election activity.
But is she asking Albertans to do the opposite, to blanket disregard everything she’s said or written before? Does the slate get wiped clean as of her swearing-in on Oct. 6, and do we render null and void all the positions she took before and the controversial voices she championed that helped persuade United Conservative activists and vaccine skeptics to vote for her?
In one of the few news conferences Smith has given since becoming premier, she deflected a reporter’s question by saying this:
“There are certain forums that are entertainment forums. I was on an entertainment forum for a long time, Corus Entertainment. And I recognize that you’re in the entertainment industry, making sure you find the most outrageous statements that can get a lot of clicks.”
Initially, the assembled journalists perceived this as a swipe against their profession, that they’re unserious attention-seekers. (Detractors will agree!)
But in light of Smith’s televised address, perhaps the confessional part of that statement is the more incisive bit. That she was playing a role, unserious, trying to attract listeners to her show. Now she has a serious job, that of Alberta premier.
The thing is, Smith used that “entertainment forum” remark when a reporter asked about something she’d said about Alberta Health Services’ involvement with that conspiratorialist’s whipping post, the World Economic Forum. This was not a comment from her broadcasting days or even her leadership race, but two days earlier, when Premier Smith had announced her cabinet.
She continues to say things she’d rather not have to explain away. The old Smith is not gone, even if she does not show up in scripted speeches.
In the TV address, Smith also said that when she’s wrong or makes mistakes, she’ll take cues from Ralph Klein — “admit to it, learn from it, and get back to work.”
There’s a key difference here. Klein would put this notion into practice, most notably when he tearfully apologized and vowed to stop drinking after getting caught drunkenly hurling change at men in a homeless shelter.
He didn’t, as Smith is doing, reveal to the public this is the premier’s playbook whenever they step in the political muck.