Premier Kenney faces growing anger for going quiet amid COVID-19 travel scandal

UPDATE: As this article was being published on Wednesday night, Premier Kenney began speaking to Albertans in a Facebook Live. Media were not provided advance notice that Kenney would be speaking. Among other things, Kenney said in the video that public health restrictions announced in December will need to remain in place beyond Jan. 12.

Alberta’s NDP Opposition is demanding Premier Jason Kenney step in front of a microphone and tell Albertans exactly what he has planned for the restrictions put in place last month to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

“It’s been five days — where is the premier?” NDP Deputy Leader Sarah Hoffman said to reporters in the lobby of the Federal Building on Wednesday. Kenney’s office has been based there since the summer due to renovations being done at the legislature.

Restrictions put in place by the UCP government on Dec. 8 are set to expire on Jan. 12. It hasn’t been made clear yet whether they will be altered or extended.

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“We’re here to call on Premier Jason Kenney to come out of hiding,” Hoffman said.

READ MORE: COVID-19: No clear answer on when Alberta’s public health restrictions will be lifted

The premier hasn’t spoken publicly since New Year’s Day when he addressed the news that at least nine members of his government, both staff and MLAs, had travelled internationally during the holidays.

How he responded set off a wave of public anger. Kenney suggested it was not his place to impose sanctions that day. After mounting pressure, three days later he announced on Facebook that his chief of staff, Jamie Huckabay, would be removed from his post for travelling to the U.K. Six MLAs also received demotions, including Municipal Affairs Minister Tracy Allard.

READ MORE: Alberta MLAs who travelled during COVID-19 pandemic lose ministry portfolios

On Tuesday, ministers Tyler Shandro and Ric McIver, who is temporarily filling Allard’s former role as municipal affairs minister, addressed questions from the media, but Kenney was not made available. He wasn’t made available again on Wednesday, spawning the “Where is Kenney” hashtag on Twitter.

“There’s a desire for a reckoning of some kind,” said Chris Henderson, the chief strategist with Y Station Communications and Research.

Henderson said communications strategies typically focus on making sure you have something new to say when you go up to a microphone, and this strategy of staying out of the public eye can’t last forever.

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“The premier doesn’t have a whole lot of options — he definitely doesn’t have any good ones,” Henderson said.

“Eventually he’s going to have to step forward and answer some questions he doesn’t want to.”

Those questions aren’t just from journalists. Even UCP supporters have been critical of his silence, something political watchers believe is a big problem for the premier.

“I just don’t know how you can recover from something like this,” said Lori Williams, an associate professor of policy studies at Mount Royal University.

Williams said the problem goes beyond Kenney’s handling of the travel controversy. She pointed to the approval rating for how the premier has handled the pandemic, which is well below his peers across the country.

This week, a Leger poll found only 27 per cent of respondents are satisfied with the measures he’s put in place. Ontario premier Doug Ford was the next lowest at 57 per cent.

“It would be different if it were sort of a blip in an otherwise relatively successful government — one that had momentum on its side — but the momentum has been going in the other direction for months now,” Williams said.

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