Why even her Hitler reference hasn’t sunk Danielle Smith

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CALGARY—There is the apology for comparing Albertans vaccinated against COVID to those who followed Hitler.

Then there’s the one for comparing Alberta’s struggles with Ottawa to the treatment of Indigenous Peoples.

And the mea culpa for appearing to support Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

It’s been a striking series of missteps for Alberta’s Danielle Smith, who’s currently in a neck-and-neck race to lead the country’s fourth-largest province, according to the polls.

This is the same Danielle Smith, of course, whose career was scorched a decade ago by a political controversy — sparked by yet more problematic comments — still known locally as the Lake of Fire.

So why isn’t she getting burned this time around? There was a time, political watchers say, when a comment like Smith’s musing about Nazism might have automatically ruled someone out of the race.

In a recently resurfaced clip, she compares the majority of Albertans who were vaccinated for COVID-19 with followers of the Nazis, saying they’d “succumbed to the charms of a tyrant.” The remark has been condemned across the board, by everyone from her political opponents to B’nai Brith.

“There is no justification for politicians to make contemporaneous comparisons to the Nazi regime,” the Jewish rights group wrote. “Our leaders must do better.”

(In the same clip recorded in November 2021, Smith also upset veterans groups by saying she wasn’t wearing a poppy because it had been “ruined” by political leaders who didn’t understand the sacrifice made by people in uniform.)

Time will tell if her most recently unearthed comments will hurt Smith at the polls. There are many in Alberta who are very wary of her opinions. Still, her extreme statements haven’t, it seems, ruled her out yet as the province’s next leader.

Political watchers say that’s partly because the landscape has changed since the last time Smith was cast into political exile. Our politics and our media ecosystems have shifted — and our outrage fatigue has grown.

“I don’t know if this is really going to shift votes, which is really troubling, because these comments are incredibly offensive and incredibly weird and should be disqualifying,” says Dave Cournoyer, an Edmonton-based political commentator and writer of a popular political blog called Daveberta.

But while the Lake of Fire controversy shocked voters back in 2012, voters have since spent a decade becoming familiar with populist rhetoric, listening to Donald Trump and even absorbing a slow drip of comments from Smith, he said. If anything, she’s on the vanguard of a new wave of politicians — and this includes people outside Alberta — who are more comfortable putting extreme opinions out there.

“I think that it becomes noise after a certain point,” he said.

The irony is few know better than Smith what an unpopular remark can do to a campaign.

Her penchant for highly controversial opinions goes back decades. At least as far back as a 2003 newspaper column in which she argued claims that cigarettes were bad for you were “far from conclusive” and that moderate cigarette consumption “can reduce traditional risks of disease by 75 per cent or more.” (Even two decades ago, the WHO was clear that tobacco is not good for you.)

But by 2012, she had new prominence in Alberta as the leader of a right-wing party called the Wildrose, and came within spitting distance of the premier’s chair. Then, as now, Alberta was headed for a contentious election that threatened to upset the ruling establishment.

Then a blog post surfaced that had been written by a Wildrose candidate and pastor named Allan Hunsberger. Riffing on Lady Gaga’s gay anthem “Born This Way,” he wrote: “You can live the way you were born, and if you die the way you were born then you suffer the rest of eternity in the lake of fire, hell, a place of eternal suffering.”

He continued: “Accepting people the way they are is cruel and not loving!”

Social media was a player in that Alberta election for the first time, and the post quickly bounded from Twitter into mainstream headlines, sparking outrage.

Smith told media at the time that Hunsberger had been writing as a pastor but she’d spoken with him and made it clear that he would not be legislating on “contentious” social issues. But she refused to condemn his statement.

(The blog followed other comments from Wildrose candidates, including one Calgary-area candidate who told a multicultural radio station that he had an advantage as a white man when it came to speaking to the community. Smith herself also courted controversy again during a debate by saying the science on climate change was “not settled.” Still, the Lake of Fire was seen as a nail in her political coffin.)

“Going into the 2012 election, we really saw a desire for change in government,” Cournoyer said. “What the Lake of Fire comments and the other controversial comments from Wildrose candidates did was convince Albertans that maybe this was not the change they wanted.”

Despite polls that had put the Wildrose ahead, the Progressive Conservatives won another comfortable victory and Smith found her way back to media. As a columnist and talk radio show host, she left dozens of hours and thousands of words in her wake, from which new snippets have continued to bubble up during the current campaign.

Through the first years of the pandemic, she was an outspoken critic of Jason Kenney and of vaccine mandates who declined to get an mRNA vaccine herself and once inaccurately tweeted that an untested drug called hydroxychloroquine “cures 100 per cent of coronavirus patients.” She succeeded Kenney in the party, capitalizing on a very narrow band of support, and has since presented a more moderate face during this campaign.

But this latest reveal revives questions about whether her politics are more extreme than she’s letting on; not to mention further to the right of Alberta’s previous conservative parties or most Albertans themselves.

There’s even now a question of how Smith compares to members of her own party, considering that they disqualified a potential candidate last year for comparing vaccine passports to policies rolled out by Hitler, points out Keith Brownsey, a political scientist at Mount Royal University in Calgary.

Part of the what’s changed is that the media landscape is weaker and more fractured than it was in 2012, meaning stories like this aren’t viewed the same way, he said.

“We have our own silos and we stick to them,” he said of voters. “And something like this just does just doesn’t get the full coverage it would have even a decade ago.”

There are voters who lean conservative because they value economics above other issues and see the party as better financial stewards, Brownsey said. He questioned whether these comments might make some of them reconsider.

In her latest written apology, Smith said COVID was a “divisive and painful” period and she hoped everyone could move on to issues that currently matter to Albertans.

“I’ve always remained a friend to the Jewish community, to Israel and to our veterans,” she told reporters Monday.

Pollster Janet Brown says it’s too soon to know whether or not this latest comment will affect Smith’s support, but the two parties have been neck and neck thus far, with the race only tightening in recent weeks.

Brown pointed out that when Smith faced controversy in 2012, upset voters had another conservative party to vote for, in Alison Redford’s Progressive Conservatives. This time, disgruntled voters who are otherwise inclined to swing right would have to make a bigger leap to the NDP, which might explain some of Smith’s continued support.

Then there’s the fact that, for better or worse, Smith is a much more familiar figure than she was a decade ago. “I mean, these are really egregious comments,” Brown said. “It’s hard to imagine even her staunchest defenders defending these kinds of statements.

“Then again, she’s said a lot of controversial things in the past, and some people haven’t been bothered. So if nothing she’s said in the past has bothered you, will this?”

With files from The Canadian Press

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