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Danielle Smith Is Stubbornly Ideological But Just Not That Loyal

12/19/2014 01:12 EST | Updated 02/18/2015 05:59 EST
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The day after Alison Redford's Progressive Conservatives pulled off a somewhat surprising election victory in April 2012, I interviewed the other woman who came close to being Alberta's first elected female premier. It's important to point out that in the wake of this week's supernova implosion of the Wildrose Party, Danielle Smith and her upstart gang of like-minded conservative insurgents nearly ended the PC dynasty.

After what can only be described as a crushing electoral defeat, Smith remained thoughtful during my interview with her, providing some solid insight into the most unconventionally compelling Alberta election in decades.

With the camera off, I said my thanks and congratulated Smith for winning her Highwood seat in the Alberta legislature. I debated whether to thank Smith for running an exciting campaign (not wanting to seem overly enthusiastic or partisan). In the end, I did tell her she should be proud of raising the level of political debate in staid Alberta. Smith was typically gracious and seemed genuinely grateful to hear the compliment.

Without a doubt, Smith impressed me during that election as someone with a sense of ideological purpose. She struck me as logical and principled, albeit somewhat needlessly strident, when she defended the free speech of those who doubted the science of climate change and another who hatefully suggested gays would burn in a "lake of fire."

Nevertheless, I remember thinking the "self-styled disciple of Britain's Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher" knows who she is, what she believes -- and is comfortable in her own skin. In the years after the election, Smith held true to her ideological political compass -- and fought her corner well.

Not so long ago, Smith vilified the Alberta PC party, branding it as tired, washed up, and spiralling out of control. Alberta faced certain disaster if the Tories continued their uninterrupted reign. Smith was fervent. Committed. She would burn down the village to save it.

Fast forward to Smith and her new boss, Jim Prentice, walking down the stairs at Government House this week to announce their "unification."

Prentice, of course, shrewdly outflanked Smith and her party in recent months by adopting many popular Wildrose ideals such as balancing the budget, reviewing controversial property rights laws and health care choice.

So now, Smith lauds what she denounced so vehemently. Her massive flip flop, wrote one commentator, "tests the gag reflex." Many of her supporters feel betrayed and want heads to roll, while others in the media have denounced her move as more "naked ambition" from yet another sketchy politician.

I am not surprised by Smith's political expedience. The savvy politician threw her trusted political mentor -- and supposed friend -- Tom Flanagan under the bus when comments he made about child pornography sparked a media firestorm in 2013.

Flanagan, a longtime professor and former principal aide to Prime Stephen Harper, worked tirelessly -- put his "life on hold for two years" -- to help turn Smith and the Wildrose Party into a competitive force in 2012. Smith outsourced disavowing Flanagan to political staffers. She didn't even pick up the phone to ask her former teacher for his side of the story. But did she abandon her ideology?

Polticial scientists and other academics debate -- continuously -- about ideology and its usefulness for understanding politics. Daniel Bell famously dismissed ideology in his influential book "The End of Ideology" in 1960.

There's no doubt grand debates about ideology do not command the public's attention the way they did in the 1930s, for instance. Along with the decline of big ideas, we've witnessed the rise of the celebrity politician who is increasingly judged not what he or she thinks -- but by their likability. As well, political parties have all also grouped around the centre of the political spectrum, making ideological and policy differences less transparent.

Most important, though, ideology is often presented as something other than ideology. Ideas are stripped of their ideological tone. Neoliberalism, in particular, is frequently presented as natural or common sense. Economic principles are often equated to natural laws akin to gravity. Government services, according to this logic, must be efficient and cost-effective because that's the way the world works.

Smith claims she agreed to the hostile takeover of the Wildrose Party because she and Prentice share "aligned values and principles" -- and (this is where ideology becomes important) she wants to unite the right for the tough economic times to come.

Even Preston Manning -- the doyen of western Canadian conservatism -- blessed the defections by nine Wildrose MLAs.

Political stripes are beside the point, argues Manning. It is time to pull together. Read: opposing the impending big cuts to public spending because of dropping oil prices is not acceptable. Good conservatives must unite to persuade the public to lower their expectations. Prentice and his ideological soulmate Smith -- who will no doubt be propelled to cabinet in the days head -- will soon herald the common sense of linking spending on education and health to oil and gas revenues.

Some may be surprised by Smith's supposed U-turn and decision to abandon her principled and trusted position as leader of the Opposition. Can you imagine Margaret -- "The Lady's Not For Turning" -- Thatcher joining forces with her arch political enemies? Smith's political idol was stubbornly ideological. And so is Smith it turns out.

She's just not all that attached to a particular political party or brand. Baroness Thatcher also spoiled to debate her detractors in hopes of convincing voters of her political philosophy or ideology. The question now is if Smith is as skilled as her political hero at convincing Albertans of her world view.

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