A campaign-style announcement featuring UCP Leader Danielle Smith ended with her getting grilled on a number of controversies Tuesday while a health-care worker appeared to give the premier a sly middle finger.
The photo of the woman in a lab coat and a medical mask with her arms crossed and finger up in the direction of Smith blew up on social media following the Tuesday gathering in Sherwood Park.
Smith and local candidates were at the Synergy Wellness Centre “because the NDP keep lying” about the party’s plans for health care.
She insisted Albertans will not have to pay out-of-pocket for medical care or prescriptions, despite statements she made suggesting more user-pay policies before becoming premier.
Smith also received several questions about her call with Artur Pawlowski, which she again refused to answer citing legal advice.
“We’ve got to let the ethics commissioner process play out. I respect the role that she has and I’m fully cooperating with her,” Smith told reporters.
Smith was then asked about a UCP candidate who recently said people who have heart attacks should be held accountable because some are “extremely overweight.”
A now-former UCP candidate who claimed that teachers were showing pornography to kindergarten kids was also brought up by a reporter who asked why the party isn’t taking responsibility for both statements.
“I think the two candidates did take responsibility. One offered her resignation and I accepted it and the other offered clarification on her statement and I accept that as well,” Smith said.
‘SHE IS LOSING A LOT OF PEOPLE’
Things are not going well for Smith and her UCP ahead of a May 29 vote, said campaign strategist Stephen Carter.
He ran successful campaigns for former premier Alison Redford and former Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi and said the UCP will have a tough time launching under the current cloud of controversy.
“She is losing a lot of people, and we’re seeing that in polls now. And the problem with polls is once they go down, they tend to go down in a hurry,” Carter told CTV News Edmonton.
He was referring to a CBC-commissioned poll that shows the NDP is gaining on the UCP in Calgary. Carter said it is bad news for the governing party.
The questions surrounding Smith, her candidates and Pawlowski are gifts to the NDP, Carter believes, because moderates are turning away from Smith and her party in battleground ridings in Calgary.
“Negativity tends to win the day in campaigning…More often than not, it is the party that loses the campaign painting itself with their own negativity, as Danielle Smith is right now,” he said.
Smith insisted Tuesday that the election writ will be dropped on May 1 and that Albertans will vote on May 29.
But Carter pointed out that date could be changed by a government with a majority, and he wouldn’t be shocked if that’s an option some in the UCP are considering.
“If another poll is released in the next week that shows her dropping even further, knives could come out. This is not a party that is known for being tolerant of losing,” he said.
“Tossing out a leader might be the best thing that the UCP could do, in order to get themselves on solid footing.”
‘HER STORY KEEPS CHANGING’
Political scientist Duane Bratt watched Tuesday’s press conference and noted Smith would not tell reporters when she learned that ethics commissioner Marguerite Trussler began investigating the Pawlowski call.
“It was clear she doesn’t want to talk about that,” Bratt told CTV News Edmonton.
“There are issues about her judgment, about her trustworthiness. And those are going to continue throughout the campaign.”
Smith announced the investigation herself on Monday.
On Tuesday, Smith said reporters should ask Trussler’s office when she informed the premier of the investigation, but the ethics commissioner does not confirm publicly if investigations exist until they are completed.
On her radio show on Saturday, Smith offered a new version of the story, stating she took the call from Pawlowski because she thought it was going to be in the context of his role as the leader of another political party.
“The problem with the radio show is that the version of events keeps changing. Her story keeps changing,” Bratt said.
“She said she only talked to him on a leader-to-leader basis. There was no indication at any time in that phone call that it was on a leader-to-leader basis, and that’s where she gets into trouble.”
Bratt said the Pawlowski call controversy might die down if Smith stops talking about it for a couple of weeks and if no new developments emerge.
Carter suggested Smith and the UCP go quiet for a week to strategize about if they should launch a campaign, when and how best to do that.
Smith was asked Tuesday if she was worried about all of the controversy surrounding her and her party, as the vote approaches.
“I’ve had 27 years in public life making statements and, you know, there are sometimes where I’ve had missteps, I don’t think there’s any doubt about that,” she said.
“I think people are forgiving when you give an opportunity to explain what you meant and I want to extend the same opportunity to others…Sometimes we’re not perfect in how we communicate and I keep, every single day, working on that and I’m going to encourage my candidates to do the same.”
CTV News Edmonton has reached out to officials at the Synergy Wellness Centre to confirm if the woman appearing to make a hand gesture at the premier is an employee or not and to offer her an opportunity to explain the situation.
With files from CTV News Edmonton’s Miriam Valdes-Carletti and The Canadian Press