'There may be more': Alberta's Danielle Smith on the fights she'll take to Trudeau in 2024

In a year-end interview with the National Post, Danielle Smith talks about her priorities for 2024

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Alberta Premier Danielle Smith won re-election last spring. Since then, her government has feuded with Justin Trudeau’s government over the carbon tax, the plastics ban, the draft regulations for a net-zero electricity grid, and more. Alberta, like other provinces, has also been hit with an affordability crisis — rental prices are increasing faster in Calgary than anywhere else in the country, utility bills are soaring in the winter months and inflation has hit everyone.

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In addition, Smith has several policy issues to tackle in 2024: parental rights and broader transgender issues; planned legislation that would allow for court-mandated addictions treatment; and a reorganization of provincial health care in an attempt to improve access and wait times.

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Smith spoke to the National Post’s Tyler Dawson on Wednesday about these issues and more. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

What was the highlight of 2023 for you?

Well, winning a mandate — that was important. It was an important validation, because it was a hard-fought campaign. It was an important validation of some of the things that we have done right, as well as some of the things people want to see us continue, as well as some of the agenda that we want to implement over the next four years.

What didn’t go great for you in 2023?

It took a little while for people to get to know me, to understand that I’ll be a little bit of a different person as a premier than I was as a talk-show host. And so I think that people now are getting a little bit used to me, so I have to take some responsibility for a little bit of the shakiness that people had or the questions they had going into the election.

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On health care, with wait times where they’re at and people struggling to find family doctors, what progress do you feel like you made this year? And what do you hope to achieve next year?

I think you’ll see more progress next year, because we had to do a bit of an assessment about what was going wrong in Alberta Health Services. And what we determined was that all roads lead to an emergency room.

They’re actually doing a pretty remarkable job of triaging but we put too much pressure on them. Because if you don’t have a family doctor, you go to an emergency room. You have a mental health or addiction crisis, you go to an emergency room. If you’re a homeless person who needs care, you go to an emergency room. If you have a mishap as a senior and you have to get stabilized, then you need to await a long-term care placement, oftentimes, you’re waiting in hospital beds for that long-term care placement.

And so, that’s, I think, the nature of the problem that we determined — is that if all roads lead to an emergency room, which is the most expensive door, it’s no wonder the system’s overwhelmed. So the structure that we’ve done now, where we have a separate pillar for primary care, mental health and addiction and continuing care, is meant to address each of those aspects. So, if we can get the 500 or so people who are awaiting placement in long-term care moved into long-term care, that frees up a lot of those beds in hospitals so that when people come through, they’re not going to have to wait for hours in an emergency room or hours in the back of an ambulance.

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If we can build a robust system where every single person has a family practitioner, whether that’s a doctor or a nurse practitioner, then they have a first recourse, if your child has a fever or they needed to get a prescription filled, rather than going to an emergency room. And then, if we have a different door to enter into for those who are suffering (from) mental health, addiction or homelessness, then we can also be able to support them in a more appropriate facility.

We’ve got a few of the building blocks in place, we’re seeing some incremental improvement, but it’s going to take a little bit more time before everybody experiences the improvement. What I want before we go into the next election is for everyone to have a family practitioner, for every person who is awaiting surgery to be waiting a medically reasonable period of time. I want to stop ambulance park, ambulances should be able to drop and go, and get back out into the community. And we should have efficient hospitals so that people aren’t waiting hours and hours and hours. So those are the things that are all focused on, and I think we’ve got the right structure in place, I think I’ve got the right minister in place. And now we just have to systematically work on continuous performance improvement.

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To what extent are you concerned about cost in the health-care system as you work to improve access?

Just even having the right patient in the right place being treated by the right practitioner is going to result in our ability to get more people through the system who do need that acute care. That could result in some savings. But really what we’re trying to do is improve performance.

The UCP is looking at the Compassionate Intervention Act, which would allow for court-mandated addictions treatment. To what extent does Alberta even have the capacity to treat involuntarily committed patients?

We can’t do it until we have a place for people to go. And so we’ve got two of our recovery communities built, one in Red Deer, one in Lethbridge; those are 75-bed facilities. We’re very close to opening up one in Calgary, I think we’re repurposing a facility in Calgary. And we’ve got a plan for 10 of them, including four in partnership with Indigenous nations.

And so I would hope that by the time we passed the legislation, developed the framework and start using the model we’d be into 2025. So that gives us an 18-month timeframe to get the facilities built.

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There are actually some really good career colleges that are training addiction specialists. It’s not just universities, it’s also the community colleges and the other private colleges, to make sure that we get enough of the professionals that we need. I’m already seeing that people understand that there’s a huge need for this. When people get into addictions counselling, I think they have a real passion for it. So, I think that with this timeframe, we should be able to meet both of those goals.

At the UCP convention in November, the party passed a resolution around parental rights in schools. How do you expect to tackle that?

We’ve been watching what’s happening in the rest of the country. We’ve been watching a lot of the division that is created. I want any young person who’s going through confusion, either about gender or about sexual orientation, I want them to feel supported. I don’t want them to feel like the adults in their orbits or their lives are judging them. And that’s always been my starting point — is how can we best support these kids as they’re working through the issues that they’re working through as they go through puberty?

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And so my personal view is that it’s better to do that with a whole family approach, a supportive approach, that all the adults in that child’s life should know what’s going on with them, so that they can support them in the most appropriate way. And that’s what we’re trying to do is, how do we find a way to make sure that we’re we’re taking in the kids’ needs first, acknowledging that parents do have a right for their minor children to know what’s going on with their kids.

What about the carbon tax? Will you go back to court?

Well, we have so many actions to take against the federal government that we are developing a team to be able to prioritize all of it. We’ve got to challenge them on the plastics ruling that they are appealing.

We don’t know if we have to do more litigation around the issue of the Impact Assessment Act because they seem to have not heard what the court told them. We have litigation we’ll have to do very likely around the emissions cap that they announced on oil and natural gas. We may have to do a legal challenge on the net-zero vehicles, which is bananas and not capable of being implemented at all in the timeframe that they’re talking about, let alone in our province. And we may want to revisit the carbon tax now that they’ve decided to levy it unfairly.

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So those are just my top-five challenges that I’m going to have to take to the federal government — there may be more.

One last question: Are the Oilers or the Flames going to do better in the Stanley Cup playoffs this year?

I love both my teams, and I would love to see them both in the final so that whichever one wins, I know my team is advancing. I have to say, I have a lot of considered opinions around me and a lot of Oilers fans around me. I think the Oilers have the edge.

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