Firefighting an election campaign

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Alberta’s ongoing firefighting efforts have taken the election campaign focus off Danielle Smith’s health and vaccine pronouncements.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on May 22, 2023.

OTTAWA–As northern Alberta is engulfed in flames, Premier Danielle Smith must be breathing a sigh of relief.

The forest fires have taken the spotlight away from an election in which her own gaffes would have played a major role. Some have suggested that the election should be postponed because the fires have necessitated the evacuation of more than 25,000 residents in multiple communities.

What could have been a daily discussion of Smith’s multiple positions on private medicine and interference in the judicial system has taken a back seat to evacuation and safety briefings on the status of the fires.

Smith has also joined hands with New Democratic Party Leader Rachel Notley in getting updates on the emergencies facing residents in northern Alberta.

As the flames abate, all eyes might have been on the May 18 leaders’ debate. But the choice of timing ensured that the audience would not be huge. For some reason, broadcasters aired the debate at 6 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time, which meant that most Albertans would be busy getting supper ready or driving from work to home.

Polling shows more than 40 per cent of voters say they could be affected by the debate, so a major “aha” moment could prove to be a turning point for victory by the United Conservative Party or a defeat by the New Democrats.

Before the fires, the debate would have focussed almost exclusively on Smith’s plans to privatize the health care system. Before Smith returned to politics, running for the leadership of the UCP, she hosted a radio show that yielded plenty of election fodder for her opposition.

Some of the most shocking statements focused on her minority position against vaccinations. She confessed at one point that she was so disgusted with vaccine mandates that she refused to wear a poppy in honour of Remembrance Day. In videos from the pandemic period, Smith compared the 75 per cent of vaccinated Albertans to those who followed Adolf Hitler into tyranny.

She also claimed that doctors are not capable of managing the pandemic, and instead, it should be managed by soldiers, saying: “the problem with putting doctors in charge is that they seem hardwired against criticism. We seem to have a medical system that was almost like a military command structure that the person at the top cannot be argued with, cannot be contradicted, otherwise it’s some crime that’s worthy of punishment. If that’s the way the medical system operates, then I don’t think we can have them in charge again in a future pandemic.”

Now Smith says she wants citizens to forget about those comments and to focus on current issues.

But current issues should include how a premier would manage a future pandemic, and more importantly, how a premier would finance the health-care system. With such disdain for doctors, it is hard to see how she would support a public health-care system.

In a paper written two years ago, Smith said the healthcare system should change “to shift the burden of payment away from taxpayers and toward private individuals, their employers and their insurance companies.”

While seeking the UCP leadership, Smith proposed health-care spending accounts of $375 per Albertan to cover services and get people used to paying for out-of-pocket expenses.

She also claimed in a YouTube video discussion with a naturopathic doctor that it was within a person’s control to avoid stage four cancer.

On the morning of the debate, Alberta’s ethics commissioner upped the tension by issuing a report that found the premier in a conflict of interest for her interactions with the minister of justice and attorney general, trying to influence criminal charges faced by street preacher Artur Pawlowski.

The report could play a pivotal role in the election, as most polls claim the race is deadlocked. Notley is ahead in Edmonton while Smith leads in rural Alberta, so the election outcome will probably be decided by voters in the city of Calgary.

By all accounts, Smith has been premier-like in her handling of the fires. However, her party still refuses to accept the fact that carbon dioxide contributes to global warming, which prompts an increase in catastrophic fires and floods.

Mother Nature usually doesn’t play a direct role in an election, but a rainy voting day can depress the number of participants who get to the polls.

If Smith pulls off a victory, she can thank the province’s ongoing firefighting efforts for taking the focus off her health and vaccine pronouncements.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.