UCP leadership candidate Danielle Smith says the suggestion she is a polarizing candidate is “funny.”

She sees herself as a unifier within the conservative movement.

Just don’t expect that olive branch to extend to NDP supporters.

“I’m not trying to win them over,” Smith tells AB Today. “What I am concerned about is that we’ve lost a lot of the conservative movement, because they’ve been concerned about issues of liberty, and being able to have choice in what they put in their bodies, and also concerned about us not taking a hard enough stance against Ottawa.”

She points to the results of the equalization referendum, with 62 per cent of those who voted saying it should be removed from the constitution, as proof she’s in line with the majority.

“Others may want to take a softer approach, but I don’t think a softer approach has helped us,” she said.

UCP leadership hopeful Danielle Smith believes giving more money to a centralized AHS for health care is a “mistake.” (Facebook/Danielle Smith)

A former Wildrose leader, her unapologetically right-wing policies have raised eyebrows — from microschools to accusations that Alberta Health Services intentionally held back the expansion of surge capacity in ICUs during the height of the pandemic, possibly to sabotage the UCP.

In an interview with AB Today, Smith said too much funding in education and health care is going toward bureaucracy and not enough to the frontlines, saying the province needs to cut management.

An EY Canada report commissioned by the UCP government found “AHS benefits from lower administration costs than its provincial peers and has developed consolidated service models in corporate services that serve as a foundation for further optimization.”

But Smith pushed back, saying AHS’ administration is “just as bad as everywhere else.”

“They’ve demonstrated that they don’t have the competence or the capacity to manage those dollars well, and the more money we give them, it just seems to get eaten up in administration,” Smith said.

She claims that increased efficiency will pay for a $300 health spending account for every Albertan, to let them choose to access health providers not currently covered by the publicly insured system. She says it is an “experiment.”

“That’s going to increase the access to a whole broad range of health-care professionals and take the pressure off our existing system. Right now, everything is funnelled towards a sickness system,” Smith said. “We don’t spend any money on wellness.”

She said giving more money to a centralized AHS for health care is a “mistake” and wants to return to a more decentralized model of local boards. (AHS was formed in 2009, amalgamating several local boards into a super authority with five regional zones.)

Smith also floated the idea of expanding access to microschools — which entail teachers certified by the Alberta Teachers’ Association leading a homeschooled student or a small class out of their homes — claiming it’s a choice some parents want.

“It’s not an unusual concept at all,” Smith said. “We already do allow for homeschooling, this would actually just allow for us to have professional teachers there.”

Smith’s stances have drawn criticism, but also mobilized support.

Her campaign has frequently drawn large crowds as she travels the province. A week ahead of the party’s deadline, Smith handed over the $175,000 fee and 4,500 signatures — well beyond the 1,000 required.

It marks a turnaround from 2015, when her political career came crashing down as she lost her Highlands nomination contest. At the time, voters were still angered over her floor crossing in 2014, when as head of the Wildrose, she joined former premier Jim Prentice’s PC government, bringing eight Wildrose MLAs with her.

Later that year, the NDP toppled the more than four-decade Tory dynasty in the province.

Two MPs made the leap to provincial politics in the aftermath of her move —Brian Jean, who went on to take the reins of the Wildrose, and Premier Jason Kenney who won the PC leadership in 2017. Jean and Kenney co-founded the United Conservative Party, becoming bitter rivals in the process.

Friendly fire

As she was mulling a leadership bid, Smith said she penned a list of policies she envisioned prioritizing if she became premier, spanning 17 pages. Her team told her to focus on six to 10 items instead.

Despite self-identifying as a unifying candidate, fellow leadership hopefuls have blasted some of her proposals.

Leela Aheer questioned why Smith would spend $1.4 billion on a health spending account scheme without adding nurses and doctors first.

Travis Toews and Premier Jason Kenney’s former principal secretary Howard Anglin both had harsh words about her proposed Alberta Sovereignty Act — which would aim to allow Alberta to ignore certain federal policies it disagrees with.

Toews also questioned remarks in a column from nearly two years ago in which Smith suggested it was time to consider a provincial sales tax.

She also clarified comments on her offer of amnesty to preachers and business owners who had violated Covid restrictions.

She said those who brought firearms to what was supposed to be a peaceful event, the protest at the Coutts border crossing, will have to let the legal process play out. Four people are in court facing a long list of charges, including conspiracy to commit murder after a stash of firearms were found in a trailer at the crossing blockade in southern Alberta in protest of cross-border vaccine mandates.

Prior to her full return to politics, Smith hosted a show on the Corus radio network, which she eventually quit after becoming concerned her views would be seen as unacceptable by management and not wanting to be restricted.

During the pandemic, she touted disproven theories on the use of hydroxychloroquine in a since-deleted tweet, and set up a crowdfunding page to allow for physicians to prescribe Ivermectin, despite the fact there was no evidence that either medication was effective against Covid.

In a March 2021 Calgary Herald column, Smith also compared discussion over “forced” vaccinations to the Nuremberg Code, borne out of Nazi medical experiments during the Holocaust, saying it is not normal to force people to inject something into their bodies. (Covid vaccinations have never been mandatory in Canada, nor were proof-of-vaccination requirements in place in Alberta at the time.)

Contested nomination?

Smith said even if she doesn’t win the UCP leadership race, she still wants back in the legislature.

While she initially planned to re-enter politics by challenging incumbent MLARoger Reid in the riding of Livingstone—MacLeod, she has suspended that campaign until after the leadership race.

She said she wished the party had suspended the nomination process during the leadership review and subsequent race. She acknowledged it’s up to the party to make decisions about nominations, but said the grassroots had raised concerns about some candidates’ disqualifications.

“I think we’re actually being quite cruel to people by damaging reputations and ostracizing,” Smith said. “And I think we should turn that around. I’m hoping if I have a redemption story, that will give hope to others who have been pushed out of the public square that they can apologize, make amends.”