Last Tuesday, Premier Danielle Smith reentered the Alberta Legislature after winning the Brooks-Medicine Hat by-election.
A leader of the United Conservative Party winning an election in a predominantly rural riding in southern Alberta isn’t much of a headline. But the numbers tell a much more interesting story.
Premier Danielle Smith ran against four candidates and won with 55% of the vote. The Alberta NDP’s candidate, Gwendoline Dirk, placed a distant second with 27%, while the leader of the Alberta Party and former city councillor and mayor of Brooks, Barry Morishita, came in third with 16.5% of the vote. It is important to keep in mind that only a third of eligible voters cast ballots; low voter turnout is common for by-elections.
In the 2019 general election, voter turnout in Brooks-Medicine Hat was double that of 2022, and former MLA Michaela Frey won the riding with 60% of the vote. The previous NDP candidate received 18% and did not win a single one of the riding’s 76 polls. This time, Gwendoline Dirk won 21, most of which were located in Medicine Hat.
Smith was first elected as MLA in 2012 under the Wildrose Party (Alliance), with 53% and 10,094 votes cast in her favour. This time, the Premier of Alberta secured her seat in the legislature with 6,923 votes. Back then, the NDP candidate running against Smith garnered a measly 392 votes. This time, Dirk pulled in 3,393.
Last month, in an interview with Calgary Sun columnist Rick Bell, Smith said she would prioritize rural ridings leading up to the general election. She said she wanted to win votes “among people who share conservative values” rather than trying to appeal to all Albertans, causing a stir among those who naturally felt snubbed by these comments, especially conservative voters living in Calgary and Edmonton.
Meanwhile, Rachel Notley, leader of the NDP, has been vocal about investing resources in Calgary, marking it as the next election’s ‘battleground.’ She has also called the Premier out on fears of losing in Calgary-Elbow, a seat which has been vacant since former MLA Doug Schweitzer resigned in August and still hasn’t had a by-election. Instead, Smith chose to run in a safe, rural riding already represented in the Legislature.
While electing a new leader usually boosts overall party favourability, even temporarily, Smith seems to have had the opposite effect. A recent poll by Janet Brown shows the Alberta NDP capturing 47% of respondent support, with the UCP dropping to 38%. Notley is favourably polling at 39%, while only 18% remain ‘highly impressed’ with Smith. More importantly, over half of respondents (54%) were unimpressed with the Premier and the government’s approach to key priorities, including the economy, education, and healthcare, believing the government is on the ‘wrong track.’
Urban or rural, these numbers don’t bode well.
In her victory speech last week, Smith was the first to admit that an uphill battle awaits the UCP. It also marked a noticeable pivot since her victory speech at the leadership race just over a month ago:
In October, Smith emphasized protecting freedoms through the Alberta Sovereignty Act and said flooding the economy with new spending was causing unaffordable increases in the cost of living. She chastised mismanagement in healthcare and education and touted the need to return to fiscal prudence.
One tumultuous month later, Smith’s by-election speech signalled a shift and was likely written to address her critics in the face of such discouraging numbers. She pledged to serve all Albertans, not just rural ones, and committed to providing support for Albertans facing financial woes, despite her previous assertions about government spending. There was even a very surprising offer to help move Calgary’s new event centre negotiations forward.
While healthcare, education, and affordability might look different for urban and rural Albertans, they’re all feeling the same pinch. Polls show that these issues remain top of mind for voters across the province, especially when the fight against COVID restrictions and other foundational elements of Smith’s leadership campaign have all but evaporated in public discourse and don’t serve as the same rallying cry.
Without a seat in the legislature, Smith hasn’t had much opportunity to do anything besides give speeches. Winning her by-election finally allows her to take action, and she remains committed to tabling the Alberta Sovereignty Act first. What comes next? And how much will the by-election results impact Smith’s original list of priorities?
Without any substantive policy proposals thus far, these speeches serve as guiding stars for the caucus, policymakers, stakeholders and everyday Albertans. The next one is scheduled for November 29 – the Throne Speech – and will outline the legislative agenda for the upcoming session.
Will she follow through on her words or revert course based on the latest numbers?