Alberta Premier Danielle Smith, four days after announcing she won’t answer questions on her ethics investigation, says she will limit questions on all other topics.
Smith told reporters in Calgary Friday that she will only allow reporters to ask a single question at news conferences and not allow them the traditional followup query.
Asked why, she replied, “It’s an election, that’s why.
“We’re sort of getting into election mode, so we have lots of people (and we) want to answer lots of questions.”
The election is not set to formally begin for two more weeks, and Smith invoked the new rule, not at a United Conservative Party event, but at a government-funded media availability to unveil a new panel to address multicultural issues.
The Opposition NDP responded quickly, promising to answer any and all questions put to them, including followups.
“Leaders take questions — it’s part of the job,” NDP Leader Rachel Notley said on social media.
“If Danielle Smith isn’t willing to explain herself to Albertans, she shouldn’t be premier. Albertans deserve better.”
Former Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi also weighed in on social media.
“Folks, this is really wrong,” said Nenshi. “This was a government announcement, not an election announcement.
“It’s part of the job to answer questions no matter how tough — why I scrummed almost daily. Not answering means you’re either hiding something or your staff are scared of what you’ll say.”
Some political scientists said Smith is making the change to avoid accountability, particularly given the recent controversy over her phone call with Calgary street pastor Art Pawlowski about his then-upcoming criminal trial.
They said followup questions to politicians are crucial, as they are typically used to clarify gaps or assumptions or to challenge, if necessary, the content of the first answer.
“The followup question allows reporters to do two things. It allows them to either repeat (the initial question) or, in some cases, call out the premier or the politician for misstatements or to clarify facts,” said political scientist Jared Wesley with the University of Alberta.
Wesley said it will ultimately be up to voters to decide if they have a concern with Smith’s one-question policy. He said it’s a questionable election strategy for Smith and her UCP given polls suggest a tight race ahead of the May 29 polling day and suggests there are voter concerns over Smith’s trustworthiness.
“If you have an accountability problem, the answer is not to make yourself less accountable. The answer is to make yourself more transparent. And this new policy flies in the face of that,” said Wesley.
He said the move also opens the door to Notley answering every media question to burnish her image as a reliable, confident leader while being able to paint Smith as evasive.
“It’s feeding into the negative brand elements of (Smith) being somebody who is ducking accountability,” said Wesley.
Political scientist Lori Williams said followup questions are key to getting the answers voters require, and the new rule is part of a pattern of evasion by Smith.
“Here we see the latest in a series of attempts on the part of the premier to avoid answering questions,” said Williams with Mount Royal University in Calgary.
She cited Smith’s announcement earlier in the week that the premier won’t answer questions about the probe into her phone call with Pawlowski. In the call, Smith is heard sharing internal information while offering to make inquiries on his behalf ahead of his trial relating to a COVID-19 protest at the Canada-United States border crossing at Coutts, Alta.
“It’s becoming a pattern associated with this government and this premier, that she will have a variety of reasons for not answering questions, and then saying, paradoxically, that this is the case because it’s an (upcoming) election,” said Williams.
“This is raising more doubts about trust rather than shoring up trust and confidence in the leader.”
Legal experts have said Smith breached the democratic guardrail separating politicians from interfering in specific court cases with the Pawlowski call.
Smith has said she did nothing wrong because it’s her job as a politician to speak to constituents.
Smith’s office announced Monday that ethics commissioner Marguerite Trussler is investigating whether the call interfered with the administration of justice.