Danielle Smith remembers the exact moment when her political self was born. And, as it turns out, her father, not her mother, delivered her.
“I came home one day in Grade 8 and was telling Dad about how great communism was, because that’s what we were studying in school,” she recalled the other day over late afternoon grilled-cheese sandwiches and diet colas in a downtown Calgary diner.
“I think my prof at the time put a fairly positive spin on it, so Dad went to school the next day and read that teacher the riot act. That’s when we started talking about politics around the dinner table,” laughed the 39-year-old leader of Alberta’s Wildrose Alliance, an insurgent party that is threatening the Progressive Conservative Party’s nearly 40-year
In some ways, Ms. Smith’s right-wing views were formed in the most unlikely circumstances. When she was growing up, her family lived in subsidized housing. Her father worked at Firestone, her mother at the local drive-thru diner, and went on to work in the public service.
The couple married when they were still in their teens and initially struggled to make ends meet to support their family, which would grow to include five children.
Today, Ms. Smith is a staunch libertarian, which puts her at odds with some of the more socially conservative elements of the party she was elected to lead a year ago.
On issues such as prostitution and online gambling, her tendency is to say “live and let live” which goes against social conservatives who believe the state should seek to outlaw or regulate “vice.”
“To me it comes down to choice. I am not interested in imposing my views on anyone any more than I’m interested in having their views imposed upon me,” she explains.
Her Twitter page has been dominated by the debate over how libertarianism and social conservatism can peacefully coexist within the same party.
Ms. Smith believes they can: “There is a tension, but I believe that part of being a libertarian leader is allowing for MLAs to be able to express themselves freely on issues,” she says.
If her party is elected, she said she would hold “citizens referendums” on “morally contentious” issues at the community level to settle disputes.
“I don’t think there would be that many of them,” she says.
“To me, if you believe in democracy and choice you can have some communities where government does an awful lot and you can have other communities where the government does very little. People can choose where they want to live,” she explains.
Inevitably, comparisons have been made between the young, telegenic, unambiguous and plain-spoken Ms. Smith and a certain American politician.
The heroes Ms. Smith cites, however, are Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, “early [Ralph] Klein” and Ayn Rand.
She admits though, that recently, she has found Sarah Palin’s message of limited government and cutbacks to spending inspirational. She has also, incidentally, felt sorry for her.
“I think we know more about her personal life than she ever anticipated when she got involved in politics, but it seems like there is a bit of a different character of reporting here in Canada and I hope it stays that way,” says Ms. Smith, who married her second husband, David Moretta, a managing editor of news at Sun TV in 2006.
“I expect that at some point, my life will fall under the microscope,” adds Ms. Smith who worked as a columnist for the Calgary Herald and an on-air television host before entering politics.
Wildrose, under her watch, has done undeniably well. It has managed to capitalize on a growing disenchantment with the ruling Progressive Conservatives, by arguing that the government has lost its way and forsaken its roots, both fiscally and socially.
Ms. Smith has criticized the government’s deficit, spending and energy policies as well as its failure to reform health care in a province where emergency rooms are in crisis.
Wildrose is proposing a decentralized system and the creation of “medical savings accounts,” tax-deductible saving systems to pay for uncovered health-care costs, such as dentistry or eyewear.
She believes the province needs to be more hands-off on everything from environmental oversight to business regulation.
Although the party has just four members in the 83-seat provincial legislature, compared with 68 for the Tories, it has been polling second for more than a year.
With an election predicted for 2012, Ms. Smith “doesn’t mind the position we are in. If our starting point is 25 per cent going into the next election, I like our odds on that. We are in this to form government, not to be an NDP of the right.”
The Conservatives, she acknowledges, have deeper coffers, but she believes that might be increasingly irrelevant.
Citing the recent come-from-behind victory of Naheed Nenshi in Calgary’s mayoral race, Ms. Smith plans to leverage social media to garner support.
“Nenshi began at one per cent in the polls and then he climbed to 40 per cent. People don’t seriously consider what their voting choice is going to be until the writ is dropped. … Nenshi spent, I think, around $300,000, which is a fraction of what the two front-runners spent.”
While her critics dismiss her as a “right-wing ideologue,” Ms. Smith laughs it off.
“I have strong views and strong opinions. Because I start with a pretty well-defined world view, I think I have a pretty good idea about what has to be done. My job, I believe right now, is as a persuader.”