Leader of the opposition

Danielle Smith is the current head of the Wildrose Party, making her the leader of her majesty’s loyal opposition in Alberta’s legislature. She’s also a former newspaper columnist with the Calgary Herald and University of Calgary alumni. We recently sat down with Smith to talk politics, pot, pipelines and her relationship with former U of C professor Tom Flanagan.

The Gauntlet: You’re a former U of C student. Tell us a bit about your time here.

Danielle Smith: I got a joint degree. I finished my English degree, took a year off then decided to come back for economics. Some of my profs are still here. Dr. Frank Atkins was one of the main reasons I decided to pursue an economics degree.

G: How did you first get involved in politics?

DS: I got involved in politics as a student at the U of C. I joined the campus Progressive Conservative club in January of 1992. In April that year, I decided to run for the presidency of the club and I was successful.

It was a wonderful time to be leader of the club because there was a leadership race at the provincial level. I was originally a Rick Orman supporter, then a Ralph Klein supporter on the second ballot. There was a leadership race at the federal level where I supported Jean Charest. There was the Charlottetown Accord, which was a countrywide referendum. And in the next year, there was a provincial election and a federal election. So I had five elections within the space of 16 or 18 months. I was pretty well hooked on politics at that point.

G: When did you first run for public office?

DS: I ran for political office the first time in 1998 when I ran for school board. I always knew I would find an opportunity to seek public office. I didn’t know what level it would be at, but as I looked at the issues that most interested me, I decided to run at the provincial level.

G: Do you still have a relationship with Tom Flanagan?

DS: Tom was a 20-year mentor of mine. It was very sad for us to have the break that we did. He made what were seen to be, by some, outrageous comments that couldn’t be justified. As a politician, you have to have advisors who can express themselves in a way that is going to be acceptable to your members and to the public. His comments were just so unacceptable that I was no longer able to have him as a political advisor.

G: What’s your relationship with Preston Manning?

DS: When I got involved in politics in the 1990s, Preston Manning and Ralph Klein were both on their ascendancy. Ralph had just won the premiership and Preston Manning was just shy of taking official opposition status at the federal level. The two political leaders had a lot of influence over my politics.

From Ralph Klein, you’ll see that I have a very strong fiscal conservative streak. But that was also something that Preston Manning pressed for at the federal level. I think it was the influence of Preston Manning and the Reform Party that allowed the federal government to be pressed in the direction of getting surplus budgets.

The other thing I liked about Preston’s politics was the grassroots populism. We, in my party, have put into practice a lot of the things he talked about.

I try to see Preston at least a couple of times a year to get his feedback on how he thinks we are doing.

G: I remember seeing you on the Rick Mercer Report. Rick asked if you believe in global warming and you called yourself a “climate realist.” What does that mean? Would you stand by that statement?

DS: I think there is an expectation today on the part of Albertans, Canadians and our international trading partners that we do something to reduce our environmental footprint. That covers a whole range of issues.

I challenged our members last year to debate the issue of greenhouse gases because we never had a policy on it before. When your party doesn’t have a policy on the issue, as a political leader, you’re left trying to interpret what that means.

There is not 100 per cent agreement in my party on any policy issue. There certainly isn’t 100 per cent agreement about the greenhouse gas policy we passed. But 75 to 80 per cent of my members passed a policy saying we needed to do something about greenhouse gases.

G: How would you handle the Northern Gateway pipeline differently than Alison Redford?

DS: I don’t have many criticisms of the Premier’s current approach on selling Alberta’s energy resources and the push she has put on market access.

The Northern Gateway issue probably could have gone more smoothly if they had followed what we’ve seen TransCanada learn in the Keystone process and the Energy East pipeline.

On the Keystone Pipeline, TransCanada went down to the [American] states that were having issues, then worked on the ground changing the route to accommodate landowner’s concerns.

When it comes to the Energy East pipeline, they’re using an existing right of way, so 80 per cent of the line is on land that has already been disturbed. By using this existing right of way, you’re not disturbing landowners, you have less impact on the environment, you’ve already resolved your First Nations issues plus there is the economic benefit that will go to our Eastern Canadian friends. This not only includes being able to get lower prices for fuel, but also in using their refining capacity that provides good, high-paying jobs.

[Energy East] had a lot of the right elements. It uses the existing right of way plus the economic benefits. If we took those same ideas and then applied them to British Columbia, they really should have started looking at how they could build a pipeline using an existing right of way.

 I don’t know what’s going to happen with the Northern Gateway project. I know it has nominally been approved, but with 209 conditions. And when you look at other pipeline projects in western Alberta, the MacKenzie Valley pipeline project took 44 years to get approved and it still never got built.

G: What are your views on gay marriage?

DS: I was a columnist for many years, so my personal views aren’t secret. I wrote strongly in favour of gay marriage when the issue was at the forefront of debate in the early 2000s.
I would have to say that the country and Alberta are supportive of gay relationships and gay marriage. The majority of Albertans are fine with it, even the majority of our own party members.

G: Any opinions on drug policy?

DS: It’s a federal issue.

G: You must have personal views on the subject?

DS: The idea that someone would go to jail for possessing or smoking a bit of pot, to me, is overkill. So I’ve been in favour of decriminalization. But I have to tell you, that is not the view of my party and it’s not the view of my caucus.

G: Have you smoked marijuana?

DS: Yes, once. It wasn’t my thing; I kind of like wine. It seemed a little shady to be in the back of a car looking out for cops when I could have been in the bar drinking beer or having some wine.

G: A few years ago, Justin Trudeau boxed Conservative senator Patrick Brazeau. Would you consider boxing Alison Redford?

DS: [laughing] I was talking about that last week. I just started this thing online called liveexercise.com. They have this wonderful program called kembo kickboxing. I’ve been doing that for the past week and you’re supposed to visualize who your opponent might be.

I’ve got some pretty good moves. I’m up for it if she is. 

Interview condensed and edited.

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