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2023 in review: Premier Danielle Smith sits down for year-end interview with Global News

It was seven months ago that Premier Danielle Smith led the United Conservative Party to victory in Alberta’s provincial election on a platform centred around affordability and improving health care in the province.

Since then, Smith’s government has taken action on both of those policy objectives, with plans to do much more, particularly when it comes to overhauling the way the provincial health authority is structured.

She and other members of her government have traded barbs with the federal government over some of its environmental policies and how quickly it is implementing them. Smith says she believes Ottawa has overstepped its constitutional jurisdiction at times and she plans to continue to voice her opposition and to take action any time she believes the federal government does this going forward.

Smith recently sat down with Global News’ Scott Roberts to talk about those issues and more in a year-end interview.

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Below you can read a transcript of that interview.

SCOTT ROBERTS: Thanks for joining us.

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DANIELLE SMITH: My pleasure.

SR: We appreciate It. It has been a very big year for you, as you know, becoming premier, being elected premier. This is something you tried to do for a long time, first under a different party. Tell us, what’s the year been like for you?

DS: I would say it’s been rewarding in a lot of ways. I’ve been able to see that the civil service, when given clear direction and a clear mandate, are able to move really quickly on some pretty key priorities. We addressed affordability issues in the early part of my mandate. We’ve got more to do. We’re starting on health-care reform, which I’m really encouraged by, that we’re going to be able to make some great progress there. Of course, we’re continuing the fight with Ottawa. I didn’t anticipate that it was going to be quite as rocky as it’s turned out to be, but we’re going to make sure that we protect Albertans and we’ve got a lot of work that we need to continue doing on public safety. I’m really excited that our recovery-oriented system of care approach is getting international recognition. And I think it’s going to make a big difference in the lives of people. And then, of course, the big news story is that we’ve got our groove back and we’ve got more people coming into this province than we have since the 1980s. So people want to be here for the jobs, for the economy. The economy’s diversifying. So things are looking up.

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SR: This is a pretty esteemed position. Only 19 people have held this job that you’re holding right now in the history of this province. What’s been the best part of the job? What surprised you about it?

DS: I would say the best part of the job is the relationship that I have with the other premiers. That has been — I was told that it was the hidden surprise of being premier is that the table that we have, the Council of the Federation, everybody puts aside their political stripes and comes together to talk about the things we share in common so that we can share best practices and also have a common voice when we’re looking to how to partner with the federal government. So that’s been really delightful to take part in that. So that was the biggest surprise. I wasn’t expecting that. And I think the other side has just been how the party has come together. My caucus, as you know, before I came in, there was a little bit of internal turmoil, a little bit of internal fighting. And I’ve just been delighted to see that the other leadership candidates put aside any hard feelings and have been performing incredibly in their ministerial portfolios. And our caucus is a real team, which I love, because every single person there has so much to add around the table.

SR: You brought this up. Your main focus so far as premier is not unlike what you campaigned on, and it is this battle with Ottawa — challenging them over what you call overreach into provincial jurisdiction on a whole range of things. But, you know, maybe the climate policy from the electrical grid to methane to the new targets for the oil and gas industry. Do you think this is a strategy that’s working for Alberta? What is the end game here and what’s the average Albertan going to get?

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DS: Well, the end game is that we need to be able to develop our oil and gas resources. The world needs them. When you look at what the United States is doing and Norway is doing, they’ve massively increased their oil and gas production and then they’ve reduced the amount of emissions that they have in their own countries. That’s what our strategy should be. I believe that we should be increasing our oil and gas production so that we can make sure that every person on the planet has the same quality of life that we do. We’ve got to solve energy poverty. At the same time, we’ve got emissions technologies that will allow us to do this in a way that has less and less impact on the environment. I’m trying to partner with the federal government on that positive vision, but unfortunately, they keep acting unilaterally and in a way that I think is going to interfere with our goals. I can tell you this, the federal government has no constitutional authority to shut down our oil and gas industry, and I will fight them every step of the way.

SR: I need to ask about this increase in production, because we just saw from the COP28 resolution that they did include language to transition … many countries signed this to move away from fossil fuels and petroleum products and yet you, while reducing emissions, want to increase production. So how do you reconcile that and what does that say about where you and your government stand versus where the rest of the world wants to go?

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DS: If you look at the full resolution, it also talked about natural gas being a transition fuel because they understand that natural gas is going to be absolutely vital if we’re going to increase the living standards of people around the world. Natural gas also is the transition to get to hydrogen. And hydrogen is going to be a zero-emissions fuel as well. So we are absolutely going to be investing in LNG infrastructure, LNG production and getting more of that to the market.

SR: But also increasing production on our traditional …

DS: Completely. The other thing we’ve just announced at COP that we are going to be supporting bitumen beyond combustion types of pilot projects because look, even if every person on the planet decides to drive an electric vehicle, they’re still going to need roads to drive them on. And that’s going to be made out of asphalt, which is made out of our bitumen. There is a real promise, I think, in having bitumen being used for construction materials, for carbon fibre … and so we are going to find a way to use our materials in a different way. When we first started with oil and gas production, we were looking to have kerosene. Now, after all of this time, there are 6,000 different products that are made out of a barrel of oil. So I have every confidence that our oil and natural gas industry is going to find a way to continue production but reduce emissions. And that’s what the goal should be.

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Click to play video: 'Alberta premier vows to fight Canada’s cap-and-trade plan ‘every step of the way’'

Alberta premier vows to fight Canada’s cap-and-trade plan ‘every step of the way’

SR: On electric vehicles, the federal government has just announced a new plan to phase out gas-powered cars and trucks in just over 10 years from now, 2035. Your answer to that and what that might mean for Alberta.

DS: Well, people better buy a car now, because they’ll be rationed as of 2026. I talked with the manufacturers and that’s basically what they told me. You can’t force people to buy a car that doesn’t suit their needs and doesn’t work. And unfortunately, in this environment, electric vehicles for our long distances, rural Alberta long hauls, they’re not reliable, so people aren’t buying them. And so what that means is that they’re going to shrink the number of gasoline vehicles that are available. So if people are in the market for a vehicle, they better buy it now, because I think we’re going to see some heavy rationing in 2026. And I just frankly don’t think that people are going to support that. We have a plan that would reduce over time the reliance on gasoline-powered vehicles. But our plan is going to be centred around hydrogen. We’ve already purchased three hydrogen fuel cell vehicles — Toyota Mirais — from the Edmonton International Airport, which has 100. We’re working … on a net-zero hydrogen plant that’s going to provide the feedstock where we’ve partnered with Edmonton and Strathcona County on piloting a hydrogen bus. We announced that a couple of months ago. We’re also piloting, with the transportation industry, dual fuel vehicles for long-haul vehicles. So that’s what I think has the greatest promise in our market. But I can tell you, we’re not going to get there by 2026. We have 200,000 vehicles that get purchased in Alberta each year. So that would mean that we’d have to go from practically nothing to 40,000 vehicles being purchased, zero emissions, in two years. That’s why I say people better buy a car now, because if they have to reduce the amount of gasoline-powered vehicles that are available, everyone’s going to be rationed.

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SR: On the framework that the federal government recently announced for oil and gas emissions … It wasn’t that far off — their targets — from what the Pathways Alliance suggested themselves, the largest oilsands producers. So my question to you is, would it matter at all what Ottawa decided those targets were? Or is your argument simply they have no jurisdiction in the province to set those targets in the first place?

DS: Well, co-operative federalism means these decisions are made together in co-operation. It doesn’t mean that the environment minister gets to fly across the world, hide what his position is from the most impacted jurisdiction, and then unilaterally announce something that is essentially going to be a production cut. And I don’t think that the Supreme Court, when it ultimately gets there, because it will, I don’t think the Supreme Court is going to side with this approach. That’s why I’ve taken — true collaborative federalism is what I’ve done. I’ve told the federal government that I want to partner with them on reaching a 2050 carbon neutrality target. We’ve had tables where we’re working together. We’ve worked together pretty well on the issue of nuclear and hydrogen, on carbon capture utilization and storage. But this environment minister is out of control. He keeps on announcing things that I believe violate the law. The courts have stood by us on two decisions around that, and he continues on in this path. So I think he’s very destructive to national unity and he’s certainly not acting in the best interests of our province.

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SR: At what point do you say we have to co-operate with Ottawa to get our own interests solved and to reach our own goals? Or does that not happen under this federal government?

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DS: I have been that way from the beginning. At what point do they say, “We have to co-operate with the provinces because the courts have told us to?’” They’re the ones who are acting outside the law and it’s very disappointing to see. We’ve worked with them on the Dow Chemical petrochemical announcement. That’s a net-zero petrochemical plant. We’ve worked with them on Air Products, net-zero hydrogen. We’re working with them on Heidelberg, which will be net-zero cement. These are all really positive developments. And so it shows that when we do work together, we can achieve those kinds of outcomes. What I don’t understand is why they keep on hitting us with unconstitutional policy out of the blue that’s not in their jurisdiction, (and) that I think will ultimately be struck down by the court. They’re the ones who have to change how they operate.

SR: On the Alberta pension plan that you’ve proposed. The commission report states that Alberta could get up to 53 per cent of the assets of the Canada Pension Plan. The federal government obviously says that, “We don’t like that number,” although they haven’t provided those yet. And I know you’ve asked for it. We know a briefing note — former finance minister here, Travis Toews, said the number might be closer to 12 per cent. Do you think that 53 per cent is reasonable and is that a good place to start the conversation?

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DS: Well, I know what LifeWorks did, and we got that company, remember, it was Morneau Shepell. We chose somebody who had a lot of high profile and a lot of credibility in the field to do the analysis, look at the legislation, and it’s a pretty simple calculation. It’s, what did Albertans pay? What did Albertan seniors receive? What’s the difference? And how much has it grown over time with compound interest? And that’s … approaching $360 billion. So I would say that it’s up to the federal government to come back to us and say if we’ve interpreted the act wrong, then what they think the amount should be. But to me, that’s a measure that the rest of the country should take note of. That is a measure of how much Alberta has overpaid into supporting the rest of the country on the Canada Pension Plan. And it’s a measure of how much Alberta overpays on everything. We are always paying more into the federal coffers and getting back less in the amount of transfers that come back. And I think what I have a mandate from, from Albertans, from the referendum that took place a couple of years ago, was to stop that. They want to see fewer transfers going to Ottawa. And so we’re going to do what we can to make sure that happens.

SR: Your government is spending millions to, as it says, ask Albertans what they think about this potential pension plan. But some critics say it’s nothing more than a campaign to get people to support this idea. So how do you respond to that? Is this about consulting or is it about convincing?

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DS: It’s about letting people know that it’s even a topic of discussion. I mean, most people don’t really think about these kinds of issues until you do some kind of advertising campaign saying, “Hey, we’re thinking about doing this.” We now know that 82 per cent of Albertans know that this is an active conversation, and that’s good, because that is a lot higher than it was when we started. We’ve had over, I believe, 100,000 people participate in our survey. I think 75,000 people participated in our online town halls. There’ll be more consultation — in-person town halls — but we want to make sure that we’ve got numbers from the federal government so people know what it is that we’re dealing with. We did pass pension legislation in the fall, so any pension change would have to be put to the people in a referendum. Yes, the contributions would have to be the same or lower. The benefits would have to be the same or higher. Those are the conditions of even going to the people with a referendum. And well, as soon as we get the federal government’s response from the actuary, then we’ll continue on with those in-person meetings.

SR: So you touched on the consultation numbers. We did get the first batch of data recently and it said that about half of Albertans don’t like the idea of this. So what do you make of those numbers? And are you serious about moving forward, investing the resources and the time on this for a potential referendum? It could be years away. It may not happen at all.

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DS: Well, people need to know, if people come back to me and say, “Hey, look, I know we’re overpaying massively every year. I know that we have no control over how that money is invested. I know that this is going to continue forever with no end in sight, and I’m fine with that.” If that’s what people want to tell me, then I’ll have to accept that as a result. But people need to know that we have a situation with the Alberta pension plan where we are overpaying year after year every year, and the federal government does not consult with us on how that money should be invested. And it’s going to continue for as long as I can see, because we continue to have a very young population and we would be able to give better benefits for seniors. But if people don’t want any of that, then that’s going to be up to them. But they need to know what the actual information is.

SR: Well, federal Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, as you know, has come out against this concept, urging Albertans to stay in the Canada Pension Plan, you know, as the most powerful — arguably — conservative in this country. Does that not suggest this is kind of dead in the water?

DS: Look, I have to do what’s best for Albertans. That’s who I answer to. And I think what’s best for Alberta seniors is to know that they could get higher benefits. I think what’s best for Alberta ratepayers is to know they can have lower taxes. And if they reject that, that’s going to be up to them. But I think they need to know that we have a pension plan system that is stacked against Albertans, that as much as $425 is what we pay more per person. Our businesses pay $1,425 more per person than the rest of the country, and that would be a significant tax savings, or … give us significant improvement in benefits. I think people need to know that information.

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Click to play video: 'Pierre Poilievre urges Alberta to stay in the Canada Pension Plan'

Pierre Poilievre urges Alberta to stay in the Canada Pension Plan

SR: It’s a wonderful time of year for many families. It’s also a very difficult time of year for a lot of Alberta families who are struggling with interest rates, inflation, the high cost of living. We know your government did bring in some temporary affordability measures. What do you think the impact of those was on the average Alberta family? Could we see more of that? Because there’s still a lot of instability out there, and as I mentioned, a lot of families are hurting.

DS: Well, one of the things that we’ve seen is with oil prices coming down, prices have come down at the pump. And that’s why we have a program in place that if prices are above $90, we’ll take the tax off completely, (and) when they come back down below $80, the tax comes back on to make sure that there is always some flexibility so that people, one of their main costs, is going to be lower than the rest of the country. So that’s one thing that we’re going to continue doing. The other big area was electricity, and I knew that it was a big problem. As soon as the last of the coal comes off, it’s created a lot of instability in our market. We saw the biggest price spikes in the summer. A lot to do with the fact that we have intermittent power, we have instability in our grid. And I gave the direction to my affordability and utilities minister, we’ve got to solve this. So he’ll be putting forward a package that will address this in the new year and we’re very encouraged with new natural gas power coming on next year that those prices are going to come down. That’s going to make a big difference. Also on insurance, we still have more work to do there. We put in a freeze so that they couldn’t be increasing rates and we’ve now modified that, so that at least the good drivers will not see an exorbitant increase in their rates. But there’s more work to do to understand why it is Alberta’s market is so much worse than the other markets. We’re looking abroad to see if there are some examples of places where they’ve managed to address this with policy changes. And so we have more work to do on that in the new year. Those are the big areas I think we’ve got to address.

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SR: I want to ask you about electricity rates as well, because getting back to the battle with the feds, you guys brought forward the Sovereignty Act for the first time in the fall session, talking about the requirements on the grid for net zero by 2035. And your government has suggested this could leave … the system somehow vulnerable or lead to massive price hikes. But these price hikes have happened without any federal intervention. It happened under the UCP government, as you just mentioned. There’s a problem with this system. So is it fair to criticize Ottawa for hypotheticals down the road and what might happen, when under the UCP watch this has happened to the electricity market and it is crushing a lot of families, the price of electricity right now?

DS: Well, look, I mean, I would say that what happened was the early phase-out of coal created this instability and the fact that we brought on a lot of intermittent power with not enough natural gas to back it up, that’s going to be corrected in the new year. We’ve got 2,700 megawatts of new natural gas power on, and that’s a measure of how important that baseload power is to go from average rates of $0.32 a kilowatt hour down to $0.10. That’s because we’re bringing on baseload power that we can rely on. And we have to make sure that we keep on doing that. The problem I have right now is I know that my demand is going to continue to go up and there is no natural gas power in the queue. No one wants to build it. And when I ask my generators, “Why not?” They say (there’s) too much uncertainty from Ottawa, because we can’t guarantee that we’re going to be 95 per cent abated by 2035. And with the laws as they’re written, it could mean jail time or fines for … the decision-makers if they don’t achieve those targets. So as a result, I can’t guarantee that we’re going to have new baseload power come on. So, yes, the federal government is responsible for that. So that’s why we have to make sure that in our market we continue to bring on baseload power and we’re going to do that, even if it means we have to be the generator of last resort.

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SR: So at a time when so many Alberta families are hurting, your government is contributing $300 million to a new arena for the (Calgary) Flames. Not directly for the arena, as you’ve said, but the infrastructure, the roads that make an arena possible. This is something that you said for years government shouldn’t be involved in, and yet, just before the election, this announcement comes out. So how do you explain that to voters outside of Calgary that are also going to be paying for this, or in a place like Edmonton … (where) we didn’t get that deal for Rogers Place.

DS: Well, I always supported a Calgary arena. I should just correct you on that.

SR: … (inaudible) for-profit venture.

DS: I always said that we needed to do whatever we could to get them to the finish line. And that’s why we engaged in a way which I think is appropriate. We’re going to be building the roads and the LRT stations, the public gathering areas and the community rink. And those are ways that we were able to get the two parties back to the table and get to the finish line. And I think it’s going to be a major investment. Here’s the thing I think taxpayers need to understand is that once we revitalize the downtown core and the values of those properties go up, it means that there are more taxpayers which should reduce everybody else’s taxes as well. I mean, part of the reason why we’ve seen taxes go out into the outlying areas is because downtown has been devastated over the last number of years with office headquarters moving out, people not being here, the value of those buildings going down. We have to support the City of Calgary in making sure that downtown remains a vibrant place to be — it’s the heart of the city. And so we have to make sure that the remainder of the river’s districts gets built out, and that this event centre gets built so that there’s not only a home for the NHL team, but also the ability to attract concerts, all of the additional hotel and living areas and vibrant community that’s going to be built around there. I’m pretty excited about the project.

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Click to play video: 'Deal finalized for new event centre, home for Calgary Flames'

Deal finalized for new event centre, home for Calgary Flames

SR: But what do you say to those voters outside of Calgary that said, “This is a lot of money to be spending and it’s coming out of my pocket too.”

DS: We spend about the same amount in Calgary and in Edmonton on things that are identified as priorities by the various councils in Calgary and Edmonton. So in Edmonton we had about $3 billion in our capital budget and Calgary was about $2.7 (billion). And when we talked to the city about the things that were important to them, that was one of the things that was important to them. So we were happy to help to get the project to the finish line.

SR: Hospitals, as you know, are a big problem right now. They’re bursting at the seams. We’ve been reporting on ER wait times upwards of 12 hours on average to see a doctor. We know patients are frustrated. We know health-care workers are fatigued by all this. And it looks a lot like it did last December when you became premier and said things were going to change. So is the situation we look at today acceptable to you?

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DS: No, it’s not. That’s part of the reason why we’ve made the changes that we did. I wanted to give the team that was in there a period of time to demonstrate that with the direction that we gave them, that they were going to be able to make some improvements. And initially they did. We ended the red alerts with ambulances. Ambulances were doing drop and go, so they weren’t lined up for hours at an emergency room. We saw a 17 per cent decrease in the time it took to get through an emergency room. We were starting to see a reduction in the number of surgical backlogs, but things ended up regressing and we need to make constant continual improvement. So when the management team isn’t performing, you bring in new management, which is what we’ve done. We maintain the same targets. Everybody should be able to have a family practitioner. We want to make sure that we have an efficient way of getting patients dropped off when they get taken by ambulance to an emergency. We want to make sure that the emergency rooms are efficiently getting people who need care treated and released or treated and admitted. We want to make sure that every person who needs to get a place in a long-term care home has one. And we want to keep on driving down the surgical wait time so that nobody waits longer than medically necessary. So those are my five targets. And so that’s what I hope people will judge me on in the next election, because we intend to make great progress on it.

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SR: Obviously, things in ERs will get better once respiratory virus season is over. But what happens if we sit here next December and we’re in the same position?

DS: I would say that that’s one of the things I’ve asked (Health Minister) Adriana LaGrange to look into, because I’ve been frustrated that even though we’ve been growing in population, we haven’t seen an increase in our ICU capacity and that’s what we need to have. So where we are now is we’ve got 223 ICU beds, which is normally enough to manage us through a regular season, but we always end up in surge season with these pressures of not being able to give the public confidence that we can manage the extra surge load. So I want to make sure that we have the right number of ICU beds, that we’re ready for a respiratory virus season and they’ve got a new set of eyes on it with Adriana LaGrange. She’s told me that she’ll do that analysis and we’ll make the investment where we need to so that people can have that confidence. I can tell you a place like Hawaii, for a similar type of population, would have four times the number of beds that we do. So I think that this is an issue of making sure that we’re investing in the right place. And it was identified years ago. We were supposed to increase the capacity. It hasn’t been done with the new group in there. I hope it does.

SR: Public safety is a big issue for a lot of people, especially in the two big cities of Edmonton and Calgary. We have seen random attacks on innocent people. Police are sort of at wits end. Government, I know, is attempting to do what it can. What is the one thing, the first thing, that you can do to really move the needle on this? I know you’re pledging more officers, 50 more officers for Edmonton and Calgary, but they’re not going to be on the ground for another year. What can you do today, or very soon, that will move the needle on this?

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DS: There’s a few things. I mean, we stand by in Calgary, if the Calgary Police Service wants our support and help in clearing out some of the gang-run encampments, then we’d be happy to help them with that. It’s a much more acute issue in Edmonton. And so we’ve told the Edmonton Police Service that we stand ready to help them. We’ve increased our shelter space so that — because that’s what the court has said, is that you can’t clear the encampments unless there’s some place for somebody to go. We’re going to make sure that there is a place for people to go. And we will have a lot more to say about it in the new year. There’s still some active litigation that is going on right now that is over on Jan. 11. And once we see what the court says about our ability to assist in moving people, then we’ll be able to move on that. But I think we need to understand that these are dangerous places, that there are gangs who are taking advantage of vulnerable people there. They’re operating them as drug markets. In Edmonton, there was a bystander who was hauled into one of these camps and raped. We have gangs who are managing access and charging people protection money to be there, lighting their places on fire if they don’t pay. That is not an environment anybody should be in, and we can’t have a tolerance for that kind of mistreatment. So the guys who are bad guys, we’re going to put them in jail, and the ones who need treatment and need support, we’re going to make sure that they get it. That’s the approach that we want to take and we need to work with our police services to make sure that happens.

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SR: At the UCP’s annual general meeting recently, a vast number of board members that were elected identify themselves as members of this grassroots conservative group Take Back Alberta, as you know, a number of resolutions passed, some considered controversial, including pronoun policy for kids in schools, the removal of diversity and inclusion offices in post-secondary schools — this group claims they’re in control of the UCP. Is that true?

DS: Well, the way parties and governments interact is that the UCP members pass policies that they think the government should consider, and then the government considers them. And we have to put it through a lens of what’s best for Alberta, what our stakeholders tell us, and then we will implement some, we might partially implement others and we might have to reject others. So we’re just going through that process now and every year we’ll go back and we’ll give a bit of an accountability to the members about the things that we were able to act on and why. So I think it’s a very healthy process. Every single political party goes through that.

SR: But do they control the party? These are their words.

DS: Well, I’ll tell you what parties control. They put together fundraising meetings and they make sure that constituency associations file their annual reports on time and they elect officers to be able to manage those constituency associations and they run candidate nominations. And so there’s very functional roles that the parties play. So I would say that that is the same in every single political party.

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Click to play video: 'A look at what kind of role Take Back Alberta may play at UCP AGM in Calgary'

A look at what kind of role Take Back Alberta may play at UCP AGM in Calgary

SR: A final question. You know, the world’s in a pretty precarious place right now. We’ve got conflict in Ukraine. We’ve got conflict in Israel. The global economy is still uncertain. The cost of living, as we’ve talked about, is hurting a lot of families. What do you think 2024 holds for Alberta, for Albertans? And what’s your message to people when there is so much volatility out there in the world right now?

DS: I think Alberta is a bit of a safe haven for people. I think that what they’re seeing is that they can come here and they can get a good-paying job. They can start a business. They have a fantastic place to raise their family. We’re increasingly diversified. There’s exciting things happening in our major centres. If you want to live in a smaller town, you can do that too. Access to international markets, whether you want to work in the oil and gas sector or green tech or venture capital or agrifood or the film industry, we have it all and I think people are voting with their feet and they’re showing their confidence. One of the issues that we have to make sure is that we continue to invest so that we can keep up with that growth. So when new people come, it means we have to make sure that we’re investing in schools and hospitals and roads. We have to ensure that people have affordable housing. So we’re working with our municipal partners to ensure that we can clear away the red tape to make sure that more homes get built. We’ve got to address rental affordability and some of the other affordability issues that we see. But I feel like these are challenges that we can rise to. And I think that people are going to continue coming to our great province.

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SR: Premier, thanks so much for the time. We appreciate it.

DS: My pleasure.

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