Wildfires raging across Alberta have upended this month’s election campaign, but political watchers are split on whether it has made an impact on the razor-thin race.
United Conservative Leader Danielle Smith has had to juggle campaigning with leading the province’s response to the crisis as premier. Her opponent, NDP Leader Rachel Notley, has also suspended some campaign events and even offered to help Smith, pointing to her own experience as premier during the Fort McMurray wildfire of 2016.
But pollster Janet Brown told Mercedes Stephenson during a panel discussion that aired Sunday on The West Block that voters are not seeing the wildfires as a political issue.
“It’s definitely an important story,” she said, “but when it comes to dealing with these fires, the premier is really a figurehead.
“I think the bigger question for Albertans is, was the government ready to handle this?”
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The fires have given Smith — who’s facing her first campaign as UCP leader after being elected by the party seven months ago — an opportunity to prove she can be an effective leader and work with other levels of government. But experts on the panel disagreed on whether she’s passing the test.
“The premier kind of stumbled off the blocks on this one,” said former Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi, who during his time in office had to navigate the emergency responses and recovery efforts during the devastating 2013 floods that hit Calgary and southern Alberta.
“It took a few days to make a statement. It took her a couple of days more to contact the prime minister and ask for federal help.”
Nenshi also criticized Smith for continuing to attend fundraisers while tens of thousands of Albertans were being evacuated from their communities due to the wildfire risk.
“Unfortunately, a lot of what I’m hearing from the affected areas is that people are actually very frustrated with the government response, which surprised me,” he said.
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Monte Solberg, a former Conservative MP for Medicine Hat who served in former prime minister Stephen Harper’s cabinet, disagreed, pointing to the quick response of Canadian Armed Forces troops who are assisting firefighters on the ground. He also commended Smith and Notley for sitting down to discuss the crisis last week, which he said looked good for both of them.
“But I have to say, since then, you know, later developments have probably erased a lot of the good that she did herself,” he said.
Those developments include resurfaced comments Smith made as a podcaster during the COVID-19 pandemic before she re-entered politics, when she compared vaccinated people to supporters of the Nazi regime and said she would not wear a poppy for Remembrance Day to protest government mandates.
Smith has explained away the comments by saying she had “frustrations” during the “dark days” of the pandemic and that she shouldn’t have let those frustrations get to her.
All three panelists said the comments have hurt Smith, who has also been under fire for appearing to interfere in prosecutions of people who violated COVID-19 public health measures.
“It just contributes to the narrative out there that, you know, on some issues at least she’s just too erratic,” Solberg said.
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Nenshi added the issue is also affecting the UCP’s chances in battleground Calgary, where the tight race may be decided in a number of crucial ridings.
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“This is a very big problem for the premier and a very big problem for people who have traditionally voted Conservative but just aren’t sure they can trust this premier,” he said.
But Brown said the NDP may be losing the opportunity to gain an advantage by focusing too much on Smith’s comments and running negative ads against her, instead of presenting a more optimistic alternative.
“It’s really keeping the NDP off message, and they’re partially to blame for that themselves,” she said. “Rachel Notley is a big leap for (Conservative voters), and they’re not seeing enough of an affirmative campaign coming out of the NDP to be ready to do that.”
Ipsos polling released after the campaign launched at the beginning of May found the UCP has a slight edge over the NDP, with 48 per cent support compared to 44 per cent, respectively. Smith and Notley appeared to be in a dead heat, meanwhile, with 35 per cent of respondents saying they each would make the best premier.
However, a new Abacus Data survey released Saturday suggested the NDP may have pulled ahead.
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As both leaders prepare for Thursday’s debate, Solberg said they each have different goals.
“Rachel Notley needs to establish that (the NDP) have a plan for the economy,” which is currently on an upswing, he said. “I don’t think they’ve actually managed to do that.”
She also needs to deliver “a strong message” on her party’s public safety concerns, he added, particularly in big cities like Calgary.
“For Danielle Smith, she has to establish that she’s mainstream, trustworthy and will continue on the path she started on,” he said, after praising her record to date on addressing health-care wait times and the economy.
“You can’t be a successful leader in Canada unless you have a foot in the mainstream.”
Albertans are scheduled to head to the polls on May 29.
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