September 25, 2022

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This column is an opinion from Graham Thomson, an award-winning journalist who has covered Alberta politics for more than 30 years. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.


After weeks of heated rhetoric in the United Conservative Party leadership race, the perceived front runner, Danielle Smith, is trying to cool things down in Alberta.

Smith is employing a charm offensive specifically geared toward winning the party’s complicated preferential balloting system.

It’s a strategy based on math and human nature as well as lessons learned from previous leadership races.

Smith is not so much attempting to poach supporters from the other camps as she is trying to plant seeds in their minds, hoping they bear fruit later.

On Thursday, she issued a statement calling for party unity and posted a video segment where she praised each of her competitors, including her nemesis in the race, former finance minister Travis Toews.

“People look at him as a person of integrity,” said Smith, who not so long ago accused Toews of using “smear” tactics against her.

“He’s given some good thought as to how we could have an Alberta Provincial Police and an Albertan pension plan and I would look forward to working with him on implementing those.”

She applauded Brian Jean’s plan to reduce the price of gasoline, pronounced Rebecca Schulz a “young talent,” supported Rajan Sawhney’s call for a public inquiry into the COVID-19 response, described Leela Aheer as “lovely,” and called Todd Loewen “one of my favourite people.”

Smith sounded very much like a premier-in-waiting announcing her picks for a new cabinet.

(Smith even said nice things about former Liberal leader Raj Sherman, indicating her video was recorded before Sherman was denied permission to enter the race last month).

Smith is doing all of this because she wants to be seen, of course, as a party unifier but also, more strategically, because of the vagaries of the UCP’s preferential balloting system.

On the ballot, party members rank the candidates numerically by preference. 

The ballots will be counted on Oct. 6. If one candidate wins a majority on the first count, the race is over. However, with seven people in the race, a first-ballot victory is unlikely.

So, if nobody wins on the first count, the last place candidate is dropped from the race and the ballots for that candidate are counted again by looking at the second choice on those ballots.

The votes are then distributed among the surviving candidates.

This process will continue until one candidate wins a majority of the votes.

That means the front-runners will be depending on support from members in the “losing” camps.

That’s why Smith, who is the perceived alpha in the race, is trying to butter up those outside her camp.

Her charm offensive is targeting everyone, just in case. She could very well need votes from several other camps to win.

Playing in the background of this leadership race is one specific race from the past: the Progressive Conservative leadership contest of 2006, where political nice-guy Ed Stelmach catapulted from third place to victor.

The race from 16 years ago is both a template and a cautionary tale for candidates today.

Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach reacts to winning his leadership review with 77.4% at the Alberta PC Party’s annual meeting in Red Deer, Alta., Saturday, Nov. 7, 2009. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

It’s a template for Sawhney, Schulz and Aheer, who know they are not front-runners but are trying to “pull a Stelmach” by being everyone’s second choice.

It’s a cautionary tale for today’s front-runners who remember how Jim Dinning, the clear favourite in 2006, doomed his campaign by deliberately sharpening his attacks on his nemesis, Ted Morton.

When Morton was knocked out of the race and the ballots of his supporters were counted, 26,000 went to Stelmach while only 4,000 went to Dinning.

The UCP’s preferential balloting system is different from the old PC race in some important respects.

Back in 2006, for example, people could join the party and vote right up until the last minute.

That helped Stelmach, who in the final days of the campaign reached out to people of Ukrainian descent living in northeastern Alberta.

The UCP, though, cut off membership sales Aug. 12, almost two months before the Oct. 6 vote.

Candidates are trying to target specific groups of people, whether that be based on geography, ethnicity, or ideology.

But only Smith seems to be having success as she runs a campaign focused on anger – anger at everything from the federal government to the Kenney government to pandemic restrictions in particular and the health system in general.

But there’s no anger when talking about her competition.

Her official campaign slogan might be “Alberta First,” but her unofficial slogan is just one word: respect.

In Wednesday’s email, she declared, “Our party will remain united through respect for the grassroots & for each other,” and added she is “looking forward to continuing to work with” her competitors in the race “when I become leader.”

At the very least, she is trying to stop the race morphing into an Anybody-But-Smith scenario, where candidates conspire to derail her or where members vote strategically to defeat her.

Smith might be taking a flamethrower to Alberta politics with policies designed to spark outrage, but when it comes to the cold, hard math of winning a preferential ballot, she is turning up the air conditioner.

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