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Alberta COVID-19 cases rise to 74; UCP to push budget through; Jason Kenney visits the airport

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Image: Government of Alberta

Faced with the embarrassment of having to rewrite Alberta's budget to acknowledge economic reality and public health necessity in the midst of a global pandemic, or stick with one that fails to meet even that low bar and sets the stage for attacks on public health care in the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis, Jason Kenney instinctively chose the wrong path yesterday.

It didn't even take all of the 24 hours that passed between the Ides of March and St. Patrick's Day for Premier Kenney and his United Conservative Party to reveal they would opt for political expedience and force through an austerity budget designed eventually to lay off nurses and cut doctors' pay.

"We do not know how long this legislature will be able to sit for health reasons," Kenney huffed self-righteously and a little disingenuously during question period yesterday. "We need the budget passed now to take care of these issues."

As the CBC's reporter also noted, just as NDP Opposition leader Rachel Notley revealed last week, Kenney also confirmed that the 14 days of job-protected paid sick leave he had promised "may hinge on a yet-unannounced federal government expansion to employment insurance during the pandemic."

House leader Jason Nixon told media the government would do whatever is required to force through the budget to fund operations for another year -- either forgetting or ignoring that Alberta's legislature is not the U.S. Congress and can fund the business of the province with special warrants for as long as it needs.

Well, never mind the differences between Canadian and American parliamentary procedure, the UCP government will do what it can, even risk the health of its own supporters if Kenney is to be believed, to avoid a fulsome budget debate.

So that answers that question!

And if that wasn't enough to make your blood run cold -- or if you haven't yet questioned what's with the UCP's astonishing timing for announcements -- Alberta Health Services said yesterday it will soon pull the plug on contracts with three of the province's largest diagnostic image providers.

AHS revealed in a tweet that it had done so "at the direction of the minister of Health," Tyler Shandro.

The president of the Alberta Society of Radiologists, Dr. Robert Davies, told the CBC that members were shocked by the sudden decision. "The radiology groups that provide the majority of service in Edmonton and Calgary, including the major hospitals, just signed a contract in November that included a 12-per-cent average rollback in their fees, based on a recent arbitrator's decision," he explained, noting that the cut was retroactive to April 1, 2018.

No sooner had the radiologists cut their cheques than AHS announced it would cut them off. "It really feels like more bad-faith bargaining from the government," Davies told the CBC. "We're really not sure why they've done this."

Steve Buick, Shandro's press secretary, trotted out the usual excuses about how radiologists in Alberta are paid more on average than folks doing the same job in the rest of Alberta -- like everyone else in this province, including MLAs and cabinet ministers, as it happens.

Also, presumably in a worrisome gesture to someone for something, casinos and bingo halls in the province are still being allowed to remain open!

Meanwhile, at yesterday's daily COVID-19 update, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw reported 18 new cases in the province, for a total of 74, with five in hospital and the rest expected to recover at home.

Speaking with her usual sang froid via video-link from self-isolation at home where she was nursing a sore throat -- a situation she described as Alberta's new normal -- Hinshaw said two of the cases, as was suspected Sunday, were the result of community transmission.

She prudently handed off a reporter's question about Premier Kenney's Canadian-Taxpayers-Federation-style grandstanding at Edmonton airport on Sunday, during which he got his photo taken with some Canada Border Services Agency officers in the frame and promptly tweeted it out with a claim to have "directed provincial officials to deploy provincial resources to AB airports."

Paul Wynnyk, deputy minister of municipal affairs and the premier's favourite former lieutenant general, got the job of explaining what Kenney was talking about, intoning with military gravitas, "in terms of the actual resources that are deploying forward, I can tell you that one of the things that's being worked on is an Alberta-specific pamphlet that will be handed out to all travellers."

Well, that ought to shake them to their boots in the Prime Minister's Office!

For the first time, the theatrical COVID-19 briefing tableau included an American Sign Language interpreter, whose resemblance to Calgary Herald political columnist Don Braid was certainly purely coincidental.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on his blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: Government of Alberta

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