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Danielle Smith should take a page from Mike Johnson’s playbook and embrace prudent leadership

Doug FirbyReports from the United States suggest that Mike Johnson, the Republicans’ compromise choice for Speaker of the House, has been learning on the job how to carry out one of the most influential and important roles in the U.S. government.

In this case, learning on the job means he quickly figured out that more things get done when legislators look for common ground with their opponents. Johnson has pleaded for “grace” from his fellow Republicans, according to inside reports, as he has made some of the same moves that led hardliners in the party to ditch his predecessor, Kevin McCarthy of California.

Some of those same Republicans are not pleased with Johnson’s olive branch approach. “He’s been put on notice,” Representative Chip Roy, Republican of Texas, told constituents during a recent virtual town hall meeting.

Now, my interest in the train wreck that is U.S. politics is probably a lot like yours. First, the improbable twists and turns are even more entertaining than an episode of The Morning Show. But, more importantly, what happens there will certainly have a major impact on our country, as well. The late, and I would argue intellectually greater, Trudeau once famously observed that living next to the U.S. is “like sleeping with an elephant … one is affected by every twitch and grunt.”

Danielle-Smith Mike Johnson leadership

Danielle Smith

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All the kerfuffle over Johnson has caused me to wonder whether his strategy of trying to meet Democrats in the middle could rub off on our Republican-lite government in Alberta. Could our still new premier, Danielle Smith, also learn on the job to be a better legislator and to represent all Albertans rather than just pandering to the disaffected people who put her there?

Or are we going to get the revolution the majority of Albertans did not vote for rammed down our throats?

Early moves suggest Smith has been shovelling coal into the locomotive with almost desperate determination. The change train has built up a daunting head of steam. Loyal soldier Jim Dinning has been travelling across the province looking for people who can be convinced, against all reason, to support withdrawing from the Canada Pension Plan. Preston Manning, one of Smith’s trusted advisers who lo-those-many-years-ago endorsed her decision to cross the floor from the Wildrose to the Progressive Conservatives, has delivered a made-to-order report on how to deal with future pandemics that recommends – God help us! – broader acceptance of “alternative scientific narratives.” Meanwhile, Smith’s health minister, Adriana LaGrange, has carried out orders to blow up the Alberta Health Services structure, ensuring years of costly chaos that further threatens the quality of our health care.

There was also the awkwardly executed Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act, a law very much at war with itself if ever there was one.

Only the potentially sensible move – the creation of a provincial police force – appears to be becalmed by a wall of public opposition, especially in rural Alberta. It appears even the people who support Smith don’t care much for the idea of replacing the RCMP.

And yet, despite the well-documented verbal gaffs and tone-deaf acts (think of her decision to share a stage with the radioactive Tucker Carlson in January), Smith seems to have tightened her grip on the United Conservative Party (UCP).

It’s remarkable, isn’t it, that UCP politicians who, during the election campaign, promised to push Smith out of the leadership job at her first stumble have now aligned behind her when a cabinet post came available. The dizzying promise of status seems to have brought the UCP moderates into line.

The ability to hang onto power also has something to do with the absence of a viable alternative. When voters are unsure what choosing “the other guys” might mean, they tend to go with the devil they know. Despite a better-than-expected four years in power from 2015 to 2019, and despite a highly respected leader in Rachel Notley, the NDP is just a little too left for the majority of voters in a province that prides itself as a haven of free enterprise. So Albertans have Premier Smith until they get angry enough to demand a different path.

Things are looking so solid for Smith that she might be tempted to let her guard down.

But this is the moment for prudence and conciliation. It’s the lesson Mike Johnson appears to be learning in the U.S., and it applies equally to Alberta’s UCP government. It’s a time to remember that most Albertans don’t care about the political motives behind threatening separation, but do care about the security of their pensions, expect better science-based health care and just want the police to show up on time when they’re called. In other words, Albertans aren’t into playing games with their future for political motives. And they are not ideologues.

There is a very real consequence when a ruling party does not consider the views of others. We see it everywhere today in the partisan politics that have infected democracies around the world. When the changes imposed by one government are out of sync with people’s values, the government that replaces it is often hell-bent on undoing the “damage” of its predecessor. Laws driven by ideology are laws that can and will be undone.

The next couple of years will determine whether the Danielle Smith version of the UCP is here to stay or whether they will self-immolate in a surge of hubris. Governments get four years to prove themselves worthy. If they lose touch, the sensible voters of Alberta will bring about a very different revolution than the one politicians had in mind.

Doug Firby is an award-winning editorial writer with over four decades of experience working for newspapers, magazines and online publications in Ontario and western Canada. Previously, he served as Editorial Page Editor at the Calgary Herald.

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