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Jason Kenney lays out the bad news on COVID-19, then wanders into the economic weeds

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Jason Kenney during his televised address on April 7, 2020. Image: Jason Kenney/Facebook

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney actually sounded pretty good on TV last night as he laid out the hard facts about COVID-19, what it'll probably do, and what it might do if too many of us act like jackasses and don't stay close to home for the next couple of months.

Kenney certainly sounded yesterday like a politician who has a new and improved speechwriter.

The facts are pretty grim, and to his credit Kenney didn't try to put a gloss on them -- as many as 800,000 Albertans falling ill by the middle of next month, 400 to 3,100 people dying if we manage to stick with social isolation, and up to 6,600 dead if Albertans refuse to cooperate and continue to self-isolate.

Unsurprisingly, given the shocking nature of those figures, mainstream media focused on that side of the story. Kenney also promised we would soon see 20,000 COVID-19 tests administered daily in Alberta as part of "an aggressive system of mass testing." If that can be accomplished, it will be a remarkable feat.

But Kenney wandered into the weeds as soon he started defending his all-oil-all-the-time economic strategy, and firing random shots at Liberals in Ottawa, Russians in the Kremlin, and princes in the House of Saud to ensure we all understand the coming economic apocalypse around here ought not to be blamed on him or his United Conservative Party.

He didn't actually spell out many of the details of his jobs-for-Montana program, as Progress Alberta's Jim Storrie cleverly and accurately summarized the premier's scheme to pay $7 billion to build a pipeline in the United States to pump our nearly worthless $3-a-barrel refined bitumen to the U.S. Gulf Coast, employing a few American citizens all along the way.

This warrants a closer, more critical look over the next few days than it was likely to get on the night of his televised address, with the coronavirus on everyone's mind.

As to his government's "re-launch strategy," nobody doubts that will be a big job, although not hopeless thanks to the moves being made by Prime Minister Trudeau's government in Ottawa. Kenney was probably trying to undercut those efforts by his Liberal rival when he suggested the downtown we are about to experience would be "the likes of which we have not seen since the 1930s."

Remember, the Great Depression lasted a decade, from 1929 to 1939, and only ended with the economic stimulus of the New Deal in the United States and wartime production -- although you can still find an economist or two willing to give you an argument about that.

But the premier may have been right when he predicted "the crash in energy prices means that Alberta's downturn will be deeper and recovery slower than the rest of the world," or much of it, anyway. Left out of that assessment, of course, was any acknowledgement of why that might be -- to wit, our dependence, year after year, warning after warning, on a single source of revenue.

"And now Western Canadian oil has fallen as low, in the past week, as three dollars a barrel," Kenney grimly continued. "There is  a very real possibility that as global inventories overflow, our energy will hit negative prices. We'll be paying people to take away our energy." (No explanation was forthcoming from the premier why we might bother to do that.)

"I cannot overstate how grave the implications of this will be for jobs, our economy and the financial security of Albertans," he continued, blaming COVID-19 and the Saudi-Russian price war, which he claimed is intended to "permanently to damage North America's energy industry."

"That is why we've begun discussions with U.S. leaders about a co-ordinated defence of North American energy to protect us from the reckless action of those regimes," he said. (Probably not a good strategy, given the recent history of U.S. trade negotiations, as long as Donald Trump occupies the White House, nor a likely one once he doesn't.)

"It's also why we made an historic investment to start construction on the Keystone XL pipeline," Kenney continued, a remark that must have made a lot of listeners spit their afternoon cocktails all over their TV screens. I mean, if we're already having to pay to give the stuff away, why would we want to pay $7 billion more?

This, like the fact the same government passed an almost completely fictional budget a mere three weeks ago, makes almost no sense at all. Unless, of course, you listen to Kenney, who declared: "With this, we are taking control of our economic destiny, investing with confidence in the future of Alberta."

I don't know about you, but Kenney's Panglossian view of the future of fossil fuels made me thankful he's not my financial adviser.

He went on: "We've appointed an economic recovery council made up of some of our province's brightest minds" -- Stephen Harper, Jack Mintz, et. al. -- "to develop a plan to get us through the crisis and to emerge with a stronger, more diversified economy." (Let me guess: more tax cuts and public employees laid off.)

"Together with the collapse in revenues, this will have an enormous impact on our province's finances," he said grimly. "You need to know that. Alberta's budget deficit this year may triple, from $7 billion to almost $20 billion. We will face a great fiscal reckoning in the future." (More tax cuts for billionaires, and maybe a sales tax for you.)

Reaching his peroration, Kenney said he understands many Albertans are fearful, "but to quote a great leader, at a time such as this, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

For some reason Kenney didn't bother to tell his listeners who that great leader was, perhaps because it was U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt, author of the New Deal in the 1930s.

A lot of Albertans nowadays may not have a clear picture of who FDR was, but every one of us born in the West since the end of the Second World War have been beneficiaries of his economic policies. And to paraphrase a certain American vice-presidential debate, "Premier, you're no Franklin Roosevelt!"

Kenney ended his economic homily with a story about the Prairie bison, which he attributed to Ernest Manning, Alberta's Social Credit premier from 1943 to 1968, by way of Preston Manning, the godfather of the Canadian right. "The buffalo … well, they herd closely together, and they face the storm head on, coming out of it strong and united.

"That captures who we are, and how we're gonna get through this," Kenney concluded.

Well, OK. But just don't forget, fellow Albertans, what happened to the great herds of Prairie bison, or how easy they were to lead over a cliff.

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: Jason Kenney/Facebook

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