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Danielle Smith Rips Off the Mask

Her combative, gaslighting persona was put away for the election campaign. It was back this week.

Graham Thomson 17 Aug 2023The Tyee

Graham Thomson is an award-winning Edmonton-based columnist who has covered Alberta politics for more than 30 years, first with the Edmonton Journal and now as a freelancer.

If you were wondering whether the often-controversial Premier Danielle Smith would become less controversial after winning Alberta’s May election, have I got news for you.

She’s not.

In fact, she has begun cranking up the controversy dial once again.

Smith may have presented a reasonable and measured face during the election campaign but it seems the antagonistic Smith who won the United Conservative Party leadership race a year ago — with a campaign heavy on half-truths, contradictions and gaslighting — is back.

We saw her on full display this week.

During a 45-minute news conference called by Smith to air her grievances against the federal government’s proposed Clean Electricity Regulations, she managed to confuse and frustrate journalists who wanted to know why her government on Aug. 3 abruptly imposed a seven-month moratorium on all new wind and solar energy projects over one megawatt (one megawatt is enough power for about 160 homes). 

The moratorium sparked outrage from representatives of the renewable energy industry that said the government never consulted with them or even gave them a heads up about the impending moratorium that could imperil thousands of jobs and billions of investment dollars.

"The Alberta Electric System Operator asked for us to do a pause to make sure that we could address issues of stability of the grid," Smith told reporters and added, “the Alberta Utilities Commission asked us to do a pause while we figured out how we could deal with end of life reclamation.”

She then blamed journalists for not reporting the moratorium was not her idea but the regulators.

"So I would just encourage you to dig up that original press release that we put out and look at what the two regulators have asked us to do.”

Except journalists had read the letters attached to the Aug. 3 press release and discovered neither the AUC nor the AESO asked the government for a moratorium.

The Alberta Utilities Commission letter merely suggests the need to consult with stakeholders to deal with power plants on “high value agricultural lands and the lack of mandatory reclamation security requirements for power plants.”

The Alberta Electric System Operator letter also does not ask for a moratorium. In fact, it mentions “a government directed six-month temporary pause on new Power Plant Applications.” (The government calls it a six-month pause but it lasts from Aug. 3 to Feb. 29 which is actually closer to seven months.)

Both letters are dated July 21 which means, according to the AESO letter, the government had decided on a moratorium two weeks before making the announcement public. Yet, it did not let the renewables industry know what was coming. Utilities Minister Nathan Neudorf would say later he really wanted to consult with the industry but that he didn’t because of “scheduling difficulties.”

When journalists pointed out the letters did not say what Smith said they did, she pushed back insisting they did.

"Just for the record, they did ask us to put a pause on wind and solar,” said Smith who by then was in a verbal tussle with Globe and Mail reporter Emma Graney who made a valiant effort to get Smith to admit to the discrepancy.

Smith then pivoted to once again blaming reporters, suggesting she had telegraphed the moratorium in an address to the Rural Municipalities Association of Alberta in March: “So whether you guys didn’t cover it or whether they weren’t paying attention to what the RMA was asking for. It should have been very clear.”

The RMA is indeed concerned about solar and wind farms taking over too much agricultural land and it supports the moratorium.

But Smith did not mention any moratorium during her speech. When it came to plans to shut down new solar and wind projects, nothing was “very clear.”

At this point in the news conference, Smith’s gaslighting had reached the point reporters should have brought flashlights.

In the end, frustrated reporters filed stories with headlines saying, for example, “Premier Smith offers up contradictory versions for imposed wind and solar pause.”

Smith is a fossil-fuel champion who very publicly wants more natural-gas-powered plants to produce electricity. Her long-time advisor, Rob Anderson who is now executive director of operations in the premier’s office, has in the past spoken out aggressively against wind and solar projects.

Smith says the moratorium is simply designed to make sure Alberta’s electricity grid can produce reliable, affordable power. Her critics fear she simply wants to trip up solar and wind projects to antagonize Ottawa, appease her rural Conservative base and help the fossil fuel industry.

After all, this is a premier who, out for retribution against health officials for supporting pandemic mandates, fired the entire board of Alberta Health Services under the guise of improving the health-care system.

Smith has a tendency to make up her version of reality and then cling to it when confronted by, well, reality. Throughout the UCP leadership race a year ago she insisted the “federal government landlocked our resources” while conveniently ignoring the fact the Liberal government was spending more than $20 billion to expand the Trans Mountain pipeline (now more than $23 billion).

Come to think of it, she’s still arguing the federal government is doing nothing to help Alberta’s energy industry. When she’s reminded by reporters TMX is 80-per-cent done and scheduled to open next year, Smith simply expresses doubts that it will ever be completed.

When Smith introduced her controversial sovereignty act in November, journalists and legal experts immediately said it was undemocratic because it would place the law-making powers of the legislature in the hands of the provincial cabinet. Smith attacked the critics, saying they were wrong.

A week later, the government amended the act to remove the undemocratic bits while Smith never acknowledged the law had ever been flawed.

Smith is such a master gaslighter because she is articulate and charismatic — skills that helped her win the May election.

Smith has since resurrected proposals for an Alberta Pension Plan, and Alberta Revenue Agency and a plan to give $100 million in tax credits to energy companies to clean up old oil well sites.

Those ideas helped her win the UCP leadership race in 2022, but because they are unpopular with many mainstream Albertans, she deliberately avoided the issues during the 2023 election campaign.

But now the controversial 2022 ideas are back.

And so it seems is 2022 Danielle Smith.  [Tyee]

Read more: Energy, Politics, Alberta

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