Kenney hoping a back-to-normal summer will help Albertans forget the far-from-normal spring

This column is an opinion from Graham Thomson, an award-winning journalist who has covered Alberta politics for more than 30 years.


There is something oddly fitting, even symbolic, about the Alberta government offering exotic vacation packages as part of its vaccine lottery.

After all, almost 10 per cent of United Conservative caucus members jetted off to hotspots during the Christmas break.

Provincial politicians are not eligible to enter the vacation lottery but now that the legislative session has wrapped up and won’t sit again until October, you have to think more than a few UCP MLAs are dreaming of temporarily fleeing Alberta as soon as they can.

For them, it would be escaping the scene of a crime where their government’s credibility and popularity have been beaten senseless the past three-or-so months.

Making it all the more painful must be the realization that much of the damage was self-inflicted.

When the legislative sitting began in February, support for the UCP government and Premier Jason Kenney each hovered around a lukewarm 40 per cent. Since then, support for both has plunged to a frosty 30 per cent, according to a recent Angus Reid poll.

The root of Kenney’s misery wasn’t just the pandemic, but a slew of other issues including coal mining in the Rockies, high unemployment and a sluggish economy.

Political revolt

The spring sitting of the legislature helped focus attention on everything that was going wrong as Kenney had to endure daily grilling and ridicule from the NDP.

The session began with troubling fiscal news: a whopping $18-billion deficit and a record $116 billion debt.

Alberta MLAs Todd Loewen and Drew Barnes were expelled from the UCP caucus over allegations they divided the party and undermined government leadership. (Government of Alberta)

That was just the start of one of the most tumultuous, raucous and scandal-plagued sittings in Alberta history.

Things got so heated Kenney shut down the legislative sitting for three weeks in May. He blamed COVID-19 for the emergency break but the real culprit was politics, not the pandemic.

Just two years after winning a record one-million votes in the 2019 provincial election, Kenney was facing a revolt from the very people instrumental in his electoral victory: rural voters.

They staged anti-mask rallies, ignored health restrictions and called for a leadership review.

At one point, almost half of UCP backbench members publicly criticized COVID-related restrictions. Kenney called the outspoken MLAs champions of free speech – until that speech included a demand from one of them that Kenney resign.

MLA Todd Loewen was booted from caucus along with perpetual-thorn-in-Kenny’s-side MLA Drew Barnes.

Deny, defend, deflect

That managed to silence disgruntled MLAs – until Kenney gave them another opening to complain about his leadership when he held a booze-filled, non-socially distant dinner atop the notorious ‘Sky Palace.’

After issuing a classic Kenney response – deny, defend, deflect – the premier finally admitted to making a mistake and apologized but not before his hubris had turned what should have been a one-day scandalette into a week-long scandal.

Perhaps Kenney thinks apologizing is a sign of weakness. It’s not, as former-premier Ralph Klein demonstrated to great effect. Saying you’re sorry is a sign of humility, a quality Kenney professes to admire but rarely seems to display.

This week, for example, he denied supporting an anti-niqab policy from 2015 when he was a federal Conservative minister even as other federal Conservatives this week began issuing their own belated apologies.

WATCH | Kenney denies supporting niqab ban:

Speaking at news conference following the virtual Western Premiers Conference on Tuesday, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney denied that he supported a ban on niqabs even though he issued a directive in 2011 banning women from wearing them during citizenship ceremonies when he was the federal minister of citizenship and immigration. 2:39

Kenney prefers to bulldoze his way through controversy. But sometimes he comes up against an immovable object, such as the Supreme Court decision that defeated his legal fight against the federal carbon tax or the $1.3 billion loss the government suffered after his gamble on the Keystone XL pipeline project.

Kenney, though, did manage to pluck a few victories from the ravenous jaws of defeat this spring.

He introduced a law to recall miscreant MLAs, revamped the old NDP’s “turn off the taps” legislation, opened the way for a referendum on equalization this October, and made a deal with Ottawa over carbon capture projects.

Each of these successes are problematic in their own right and have plenty of critics but they do allow Kenney to say “promise made, promise kept” even if he struggles yet to fulfil the big promises of jobs, economy and pipelines.

“This was an extraordinary session during an extraordinary time,” said Kenney in a statement Thursday. “Never has Alberta faced so many challenges at once: the pandemic, a devastated economy, the energy price collapse, and the biggest vaccination program in our history.”

Therein lies his biggest success of the past three months: the vaccination program.

Kenney appears to have achieved his goal of getting 70 per cent of Albertans vaccinated with at least one dose. He couldn’t have done it without the federal vaccination procurement program. But Kenney is not one to easily acknowledge help from the federal Liberals even after they pumped billions of dollars into the province during the pandemic.

If his strategy continues to work as planned, we should be back to almost-normal in a few weeks. With fingers crossed, we can enjoy our always-too-short summer – and Kenney can begin to focus on his pre-pandemic strategy: blaming Ottawa for all of Alberta’s problems.

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