Alberta Premier Danielle Smith was sworn in as a member of the Legislative Assembly on Tuesday. Smith also introduced Bill 1, Alberta Sovereignty within a United Canada Act on Tuesday. (Photo by Government of Alberta)

Alberta set for 2023 election: one premier just got the job, the other wants it back

Premier Danielle Smith’s wood-panelled third-floor legislature office is bereft of bric-a-brac.

There are no pictures, mementoes or books — only a small stack of Alberta sovereignty act bills perched on her desk.

The décor is less by design and more by default.

“If I was spending a lot of time in the office, I wouldn’t be doing my job. I’ve got to meet a lot of people offsite and do a lot of work out there,” Smith said in a year-end interview.

She laughed when recalling her attempts at personal touches.

“I sometimes try to move the furniture around so that I can put my tea somewhere, and every time I come back, they’ve moved things back to where they were,” Smith said. “I think that’s sort of the indication that you’re not supposed to touch anything.”

But if she longs for some artistic indulgence, she can leave her office, turn left down the marble walkway toward the legislature chamber past portraits of premiers past, which now includes the recent addition of Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley.

It illustrates what will be the defining Alberta political story in 2023. A tale of two premiers: one who just got the job, the other who wants it back.

Smith has promised to honour the scheduled May 29 voting day, which is to come seven months after she won the United Conservative leadership contest.

She inherited a fractured party that feuded over — and eventually toppled — former leader Jason Kenney for trying to run a one-man show while angering the libertarian wing with gathering restrictions and vaccine mandates during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Smith, out of politics for seven years but having built up a following as a radio talk show host, defeated six rivals, many of whom said her sovereignty act was a reckless recipe for investor flight and constitutional chaos.

Kenney criticized her plan before he left as premier, didn’t talk to her in the days following her win and quit as a legislature member on her first day in the house.

There was residual bitterness over Smith discrediting the conservative movement by leading a mass floor crossing as Wildrose leader in 2014 — a move critics said opened the door to the surprising win by Notley’s NDP in 2015.

In her first week, Smith took everyone in her caucus out to shoot paintballs at each other. Now she brings them into cabinet committees and makes sure they have their say in policy direction.

“You can make fast decisions, but they’re not necessarily the best decisions. It is better to take a little bit of a slower track to make sure that everybody has had a chance to have their viewpoint heard,” Smith said.

“There was some notion out there that the (intra-party) relationships were so badly frayed that it couldn’t be brought back together and that’s not been my experience.”

Smith, however, admitted that there is work to do.

Polls give both sides hope in what is known as Alberta’s three-legged political stool. Edmonton belongs to the NDP, the rural areas and smaller centres going UCP. Calgary, and its high percentage of undecideds, is the fulcrum of electoral success.

Smith has won kudos and courted controversy for a whirlwind of policy changes.

She has fired the board of Alberta Health Services, replaced the chief medical officer of health and promised changes to fix ambulance bottlenecks and jammed hospital wards.

She has promised to explore an Alberta police service, a provincial pension plan and health spending accounts. She also passed a sovereignty act to challenge the federal government.

“I know I’m going to be judged on health care principally as we go into the next election,” Smith said.

“I’ve shown with my actions that I’m intent on moving in that direction. Now it’s just a matter of time to get things working in the system so that we can start achieving it.”

Across the snow-covered legislature plaza is the Queen Elizabeth II Building, home to Opposition NDP caucus members, complete with south-facing views of the sandstone dome they hope to re-inhabit at election time.

Notley was Alberta’s 17th premier and now seeks to also be the 20th.

She stuck around after losing to Kenney and the UCP in 2019. And now she says there’s unfinished business.

Notley said Albertans were the victims of a bait-and-switch by a UCP government that promised stability, but instead cut education, hiked fees, feuded with doctors and teachers, and sought pay cuts from nurses during a pandemic.

“I didn’t really believe that a lot of the decisions that we were seeing being made under the Kenney government really reflected where the majority of Albertans wanted to go and I also didn’t think they set us up for the best future.

“I wanted to take another shot at it.”

During the fall sitting, her portrait was hung in a ceremony in the rotunda. It’s the only one of a premier in an outdoor setting. Notley, arms clasped in front, stands on the steps of the legislature.

The door to the legislature is open, symbolism Notley insisted on with the artist.

“I started my career as an activist. My first relationship with the legislature was on the steps, both as a child and subsequently as an adult,” said Notley, asked about the choices for the portrait.

“If you’re not listening to people on the steps, then you don’t have the consent of the people on the steps, and what you’re doing inside is not right.”

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