Rough week for Alberta’s ruling UCP casts shadow ahead of May election

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By Nia Williams

(Reuters) – As Canada’s main oil-producing province Alberta prepares for an election next month, its combative Premier Danielle Smith is facing a series of controversies and resignations that could undermine support for her ruling United Conservative Party (UCP), political analysts say.

In the space of a week, a leaked recording of a phone call between Smith and a Calgary pastor facing pandemic-related charges has raised questions about the premier’s judgment, two senior members of Smith’s cabinet said they would not be running for re-election in May and a UCP candidate resigned after accusing teachers of exposing kids to pornography.

Polls show Alberta’s election, scheduled to take place no later than May 29, will be a tight two-way race between the UCP and left-leaning New Democratic Party, led by Rachel Notley.

The series of events, of which Smith’s phone call with controversial street pastor Artur Pawlowski is the most serious, may damage her standing among moderate conservatives and undecided voters in key election battlegrounds like Alberta’s corporate oil capital Calgary, said Duane Bratt, a political science professor at Mount Royal University.

“I think it will make a difference (to voters), it’s going to keep coming up,” Bratt said of the recording. “It’s going to be reluctant conservatives in Calgary who are concerned about the judgment and trustworthiness of Premier Smith and this adds to questions about that.”

Pawlowski is facing charges related to COVID-19 protests in Canada last year, which included a weeks-long blockade of the Coutts border crossing in southern Alberta. A verdict is expected in early May.

In the 11-minute phone call released on Wednesday by the NDP, Smith expressed sympathy with Pawlowski’s situation and said she would ask justice department officials about the case again. Critics including the NDP say it is inappropriate for the premier to discuss individual cases in the justice system with officials.

Smith denies any wrongdoing. In a statement, the premier said she had her staff work with the Ministry of Justice to determine if anything could be done to grant amnesty for people charged with non-violent, non-firearms COVID-related charges, and followed their advice when they recommended dropping the matter.

Smith became UCP leader and premier last October, replacing Jason Kenney, by appealing to grassroots UCP members in the traditionally conservative province. But some political analysts have said the UCP’s rightward shift risks alienating more moderate voters.

Last week’s controversies come just days after two senior Alberta government minister, Finance Minister Travis Toews and Environment Minister Sonya Savage, said they would not seek re-election.

Their departures will deplete the strength of Smith’s cabinet should she win in May. Savage’s retirement from front-line politics may also hamper collaboration between the Alberta and federal governments over climate policies.

“I think it’s a loss for Alberta and I think it’s a loss for Canada, she was a very effective minister,” federal Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson told reporters on Thursday.

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