Danielle Can Dodge a Jab

Calgary Sun
January 16, 2010

Wildrose leader keeps it respectful when describing government’s shortcomings

She gives off the same vibe as the wicked smart girl who used to help you with your high school chemistry homework because, even back then she was at war with incompetence wherever she found it.

Now that she’s all grown up, she’s still fighting incompetence. Only now the stakes are a little higher than dragging your grade-point average into higher-primate range.

Now what’s at stake is Alberta’s future.

A year ago, if you’d asked any of the smart money if Danielle Smith could be the next premier, they’d have laughed.

Hear that? That’d be silence.

It’s no done deal. There’s two years until the election and a lot of stars have to align.

The economy has to stay kind of sluggish to starve the Tories of their vote-buying money, and the government has to continue to demonstrate its deep and abiding commitment to mediocrity.

But current poll numbers charting the popularity of Premier Ed Stelmach’s government can — if you’re feeling charitable — be described as a death spiral. Smith, leader of a brand-new party with but a single elected member and a pair of disgruntled defectors, is beating the government and the opposition in those same polls.

Her party had 1,800 members when it kicked off the leadership race. Mere months later it has 13,250.

All this by a party with a name that sounds like an association of concerned florists.

Or, when reduced to an acronym, like a laundry detergent. Fight stubborn stains with WAP! Hate whites that are grey? WAP it away!

As freshly minted leader of the Wildrose Alliance Party, she dropped by the Sun for the ritual political bloodletting known as an editorial board meeting.

Eight lifelong skeptics lined up on one side of a table versus one Danielle Smith.

Afterwards, it occurred to me it wasn’t exactly a fair fight. We were sort of outnumbered.

When challenged, Smith reveals a mastery of the verbal counter-punch, slipping every jab thrown her way. She’s a public policy ninja.

Asked about perceptions she and her party are radically to the right?

“I’m not interested in how right wing we can be. I’m interested in how grassroots we can be.”

Smith’s practical.

She may say the jury’s still out on whether humans cause global warming, but adds: “We’re not going to be able to defend our oilsands industry if we don’t show we can reduce emissions elsewhere.”

She talks about how there are 600,000 Albertans who voted Conservative federally who didn’t vote for Ed Stelmach. She wants to give those folks a home. She talks about how if the provincial Tories had increased spending in line with population growth and inflation, we’d have $8 billion in the bank right now.

She most emphatically does not get down and dirty. “I’m more interested in policy than personality. We don’t disrespect Premier Stelmach.”

Smith likes the ship-of-state metaphor. “Parties eventually get stale. It doesn’t matter who is at the helm. Every turn of the wheel becomes more difficult.”

Principle seems to trump expediency. Rather than courting more Tories to cross the floor, she says: “The longer anybody waits to approach us, the more difficult it will be to convince the (Wildrose) constituency associations they’re not doing it for opportunistic reasons. As soon as we start our constituency nomination process, the door is closed.”

On government bureaucracy, she says one manager for every five civil service workers is too many. And that those managers are the ones recommending deficit-inspired cuts … which is why they still have jobs and we’re losing hospital beds and front-line staff.

Smith describes how some health-care workers used to have to negotiate two levels of management to get decisions.

With the imposition of the health superboard under health czar Stephen Duckett, that maze of bureaucracy has grown to eight layers.

Which brings her to the whole light bulb thing.

Smith describes an Alberta hospital where nurses aren’t allowed to change light bulbs. Maintenance changes light bulbs. Maintenance goes home at 3 p.m.

“When do you discover when a light bulb is burned out?” she asks. “After dark. I have pictures of nurses with flashlights.”

Smith wants to live in a province where public money is no longer poured down a rabbit hole where this kind of inefficient nonsense is the rule rather than the exception.

And she’s betting most Albertans want to live there too.