Polarization, politics and policy failure: Alberta’s response to COVID-19

This column is an opinion from Lisa Young, a political science professor at the University of Calgary. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

As the third wave of COVID infections sweep across the province, it is difficult to avoid the question of whether Alberta has become ungovernable, at least when it comes to pandemic response. 

When he announced the return to Step 1 restrictions on April 6, Premier Jason Kenney noted that the province had become polarized on the question of COVID restrictions. He positioned himself as a centrist, and the restrictions being imposed as a compromise between those who want more stringent rules and those who want to re-open more quickly. 

His characterization of Alberta as polarized on the issue is confirmed by polling data from Angus Reid, which shows that 45 per cent of Albertans believe that their provincial restrictions go too far, as compared to only 28 per cent nationally. Almost the same proportion of Albertans say that the restrictions don’t go far enough: 42 per cent. This is slightly lower than the national figure.

A mere 12 per cent of Albertans surveyed think that the restrictions are “about right.” 

Political polarization precedes polarization on how to respond to COVID.

In the United States, which experienced a significant degree of polarization between Democrats and Republicans before the pandemic, members of the public saw the pandemic through their partisan lenses.

Democrats overestimated the risks associated with the pandemic and were quick to adopt recommended public health measures, while Republicans systematically underestimated the risks and tended not to wear masks, socially distance or follow other public health guidance, to the point that death rates have been higher in counties where Republican vote share was greater.

Although less pronounced, partisan preference correlates to views on COVID restrictions in Canada too.

Partisan differences

A recent Environics Institute study found that survey respondents who tend to vote Conservative were substantially less likely than Liberal or NDP voters to express an intent to get vaccinated. While 31 per cent of Conservative voters agreed that “governments should reopen the economy faster than they are doing now, even if that means more people might end up getting sick from COVID-19” only 14 per cent of Liberal and nine per cent of NDP voters held the same view. 

These partisan differences are not merely a result of underlying differences in perceptions of government intervention.

Public opinion is shaped in part by the cues that political leaders give, particularly when a new issue (like COVID) emerges. Premier Kenney’s signalling on the seriousness of COVID and the appropriate balance between economic and public health concerns has been inconsistent over the past year.

The premier laid the groundwork for the current internal party protest when he stood in the legislature in May 2020 and proclaimed “we cannot continue indefinitely to impair the social and economic, as well as the mental health and physiological health, of the broader population for potentially a year through measures for an influenza that does not generally threaten life, apart from the most elderly, the immunocompromised, and those with comorbidities.” 

Since this statement, the premier has lurched from impassioned defences of Albertans’ charter-protected freedoms, to stern lectures about personal responsibility, to defences of the moral imperative to ensure the health care system not collapse.

Watch | MLAs speak out against restrictions

Banff-Kananaskis MLA Miranda Rosin says the UCP members who signed a letter against the latest public health restrictions did so to voice the concerns of their constituents. 2:17

For UCP supporters looking for guidance from their leader, there has been ample opportunity to develop a stance that restrictions should be limited. 

The letter signed by 16 UCP MLAs, criticizing the decision to impose more restrictions, has brought to the surface a tension that has been growing within the governing party for the past several months.

With recent reports that Kenney has threatened to call a snap election if his caucus does not have confidence in him, there is the possibility that dissent over COVID restrictions will rupture the United Conservative Party, causing a resurgence of the old Wild Rose Party led by MLAs leaving the government caucus. 

Beyond the brewing caucus revolt, the dilemma that faces the premier is that he has tried to reinvent himself as a centrist at a time when the centre is empty.

Polarization has driven Albertans into two camps: those who believe the compromise restrictions are entirely inadequate to the dangers posed by the new COVID variants of concern, and those who believe that the restrictions are unjustified infringements of their personal freedom. 

A popular premier or a well-respected chief medical officer of health might be able to use their “bully pulpit” to build support for a compromise position. But neither Premier Kenney nor Dr. Deena Hinshaw commands the same respect they did at the beginning of the crisis.

The recent Angus Reid poll shows fewer than one in four Albertans surveyed believe that the premier is doing a good job. Dr. Hinshaw’s celebrity status a year ago has faded, with less than half of Alberta respondents believing their chief public health officer has done a good job. 

The current situation is a classic policy failure: a situation in which the policy measures in place do not achieve their stated objective (of stopping the third wave of COVID) and do not command political support. 

Two unpalatable options

The polarization that the premier has helped to create has made it virtually impossible to govern from the centre. Premier Kenney is being pushed to either move toward his rural caucus’ preference and relax restrictions, at the cost of the functioning of the public health system, or to abandon his base and impose more severe restrictions, stopping the third wave of infections.

If the premier takes the first option and gives in to the demands of his caucus dissidents, the third wave will almost certainly result in extreme pressure on the health system and the deaths of many younger Albertans. Such tragic consequences would not be forgotten when Albertans go to the polls in 2023, and voters might well punish the party at the ballot box as a result.

If the premier takes the second option and abandons his base, he may face more immediate political consequences, possibly including the defection of a sizeable portion of his caucus, undoing his union of two conservative parties to form the UCP. This too is likely to have long-term electoral consequences. 

Looking at the unpalatable options available to the premier, we are left to ask whether polarization has made Alberta ungovernable, at least in terms of the pandemic. This is a political crisis with far-reaching implications not only for the Kenney government, but also for residents of the province.


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