Smith says she'll consider changes amid concerns wildfires politicized in election
EDMONTON — United Conservative Leader Danielle Smith says she will consider making changes amid questions over whether she is politicizing Alberta’s wildfire crisis by using party news conferences to deliver fire updates meant for the broader public.
Smith says she is just trying to be helpful and deliver as much information as she can, but says she is open to another approach.
“I'm happy if you want me to just refuse taking your questions on wildfires,” Smith told reporters in Calgary Saturday.
“I just feel like this is information you want to know. And if you want to know it, I'm prepared to deliver it to you.”
Smith had to begin walking a fine line of political convention this week after wildfires forced thousands to flee in the midst of an election campaign, with voters going to the polls May 29.
She is expected to juggle her dual roles as premier and party leader: addressing the crisis as premier while separating it as much as possible from party matters to avoid the appearance of using the fires to boost her profile, attack the opposition or otherwise give her and her party an unfair advantage in the election campaign.
Smith kept to that convention in the early days of the blazes, taking questions as premier on May 6 and May 8 but directing they be only about the fires.
She declared a provincial state of emergency on May 6.
But on Thursday, Smith used a party news conference to deliver a fire update. She also took questions about the situation from reporters at party events during the week and again on Saturday.
Smith was asked if Albertans should now be expected to tune in to United Conservative party news conferences to get wildfire updates.
She replied she was trying to be proactive at Thursday’s event to give the public updated information on the state of the fires and to announce members of the Canadian Armed Forces were deploying to assist in select areas.
“There had been two major press releases that had just gone out within the previous hour or two, so I felt like you were going to ask me the question, so I thought I should be upfront about what those decisions were,” said Smith.
“But you know, happy if you want to get your (Alberta legislature) press gallery to complain and tell me to stop doing any questions from you on wildfires and arrange to do it another way.
“We'll take that under consideration.”
Since the state of emergency was declared, the government has been delivering daily live updates on its webpage with fire officials or with UCP candidate Mike Ellis taking questions from reporters in his role as public safety minister.
Alberta’s Opposition NDP has already criticized Smith for blurring her roles as premier and party leader.
Leaked video from May 6 shows Smith announcing to party members she was invoking a state of emergency before she told the public about it later that day, telling them, ``You guys are the first to hear about it, so you got a little bit of inside information.”
Smith has already locked horns with the Alberta Legislature Press Gallery Association over her decision as premier a month ago to restrict media questions.
Smith has carried that policy over to her campaign, restricting reporters to one question per news conference with no followup queries.
The policy applies only to Smith.
The gallery association called for the policy to be reversed in a letter dated April 18, saying it deprives reporters of the opportunity to challenge or seek clarification from Smith if her initial answer proves insufficient.
Smith has said the policy will remain in place throughout the election because there are more reporters seeking answers during this period and this allows time for more of them to ask questions.
Smith walked the policy back a week ago, starting with her May 6 news conferences which were held in her role as premier and carried on the government social media feed.
She announced the state of emergency at those news conferences and took questions relating only to the fires. She took a question and a followup from each reporter and continued that practice in another news conference as premier on the government social media channel Monday.
Smith’s campaign spokesman Becca Polak said Monday they were going to allow two questions for all wildfire topics to ensure Albertans got accurate information but said Smith would still only take one question on all other matters.
That policy has since lapsed, with Smith returning to taking one question only from each reporter on all topics, including the wildfires.
On Saturday, UCP spokesman Dave Prisco clarified the policy is two questions when Smith is in her role as premier discussing wildfires and one question when she is taking questions in her role as UCP leader.
The press gallery association also sent a letter on May 4 to all parties urging them to take questions and cooperate with all gallery members.
The NDP has declined to take questions from gallery member The Western Standard.
NDP Leader Rachel Notley said she respects media and differing political viewpoints among media but cannot dignify an organization that, through its editorial policy, ignores human rights and dignity by promoting discrimination and hatred, particularly toward the LGBTQ community and members of Notley's caucus.
Western Standard publisher Derek Fildebrandt has said Notley "is not entitled to decide who is media and who is not. The Western Standard will never retract a story that contains no errors other than offending her sensitivities.''
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 13, 2023.
Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press