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Jason Kenney's Alberta government launches ambitious legislative session with no time for COVID-19

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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney. Image: David J. Climenhaga​

An ambitious six-week fall sitting of the Alberta legislature commenced in Edmonton yesterday with Premier Jason Kenney telling the house during question period that his government isn't about to publish any updated COVID-19 modelling.

As Opposition leader Rachel Notley argued, it would be useful to know what the experts say now if we wish to strike the right balance between keeping the economy percolating and keeping the population safe.

Premier Kenney, who takes a lot of his strategic cues from the Republican playbook south of the Medicine Line, was having none of that, claiming to have no updated models and insisting, with considerable justification, that past modelling wasn't very accurate anyway.

One might ask: Why not prudently stick with the precautionary principle and plan for the worst even while hoping for the best?

Well, there are political risks to such a course, as Kenney knows well. It's just the kind of thing he exploited effectively when Notley's NDP government was in charge, and he's not about to risk being taught that turnabout is fair play.

With the Alberta economy showing few signs of the traditional transition from bust to boom, there's no way he's going to be accused by his friends in business of being too cautious.

And with COVID-19 infections almost everywhere in Canada catching on like a house afire, he's equally not about to be accused of risking lives by not being cautious enough.

Since the initial COVID-19 modelling did turn out to predict more deaths than have materialized, derailing the UCP's rush to pass and implement a barrage of controversial legislation in the first months of its rule, the premier has a good excuse to avoid any more delays to his legislative plans.

Hence the UCP's heavy legislative schedule -- up to 20 bills in six weeks, which will surely require some time management -- and the premier's determination to keep any more COVID-19 infection projections that might slow things down out of sight and out of mind.

If Alberta Health Service's projections are as grim as those of the University of Washington Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation -- which forecasts 3,022 COVID-19 deaths in Alberta by February 1, 2021, if we stick to our current response strategy, compared to 634 in British Columbia and 29 in Saskatchewan -- you can see why he might fear doing the right thing.

The UCP is never happier than when it's governing by meaningless statistics -- they've acted on 75 per cent of their election promises, government house leader Jason Nixon boasted yesterday -- and it's never happier than when it's cutting budgets and squeezing government operations until the pips squeak.

This is what Kenney's friends at Postmedia call an "intense focus on economic recovery," never mind that conventional economic wisdom that the right thing to do in a recession is deficit spending and using debt to reboot the economy.

As Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman wrote Monday in the New York Times about what needs to happen in the post-Trump United States, "arguing for large-scale deficit spending and a relaxed attitude toward debt is entirely mainstream."

Well, Alberta's a province not a country (and likely to stay that way, thankfully) and Kenney runs a faith-based government in more ways than one, so that's not going to happen.

So fasten your seatbelts and brace yourselves. The recession here will be the usual Alberta roller-coaster ride, at least the downward slide, and we're nowhere near the bottom of the plunge.

But there will be lots of bills passed, plenty of money allegedly saved, and many public service jobs cuts, depersonalized statistics that will be lovingly trotted out daily as evidence, supposedly, that everything's getting better and better in Alberta even if it doesn't feel like that down here on the ground.

The only statistics you're unlikely to hear any bragging about will be the number of Albertans afflicted with COVID-19. But that's OK, because you'll never know what Alberta Health Services expected to happen.

Will the feds 'stop at nothing' to keep Alberta from gutting health care?

Will the federal Liberals really "stop at nothing" to prevent the United Conservative Party from gutting public health care in Alberta?

That's what federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu promised the NDP's Heather McPherson in the House of Commons Monday when the Edmonton Strathcona MP noted that delegates to the UCP's annual meeting had just voted in favour of setting up a parallel private health-care system.

"Despite a guarantee during his election campaign to maintain public health care, Jason Kenney is gutting our publicly delivered universally accessible health care," McPherson said during question period. "Once the Conservatives destroy public health care in Alberta, which province is next? What is the minister doing to protect Canadians from two-tiered, American-style health care in Alberta and across Canada and what is she doing to make sure that premiers are adhering to the Canada Health Act?"

Hajdu responded: "I share the member opposite's deep concern about a conservative party that would seek to undermine a principle of our universal health-care system, which is, by the way, the need for health care rather than the ability to pay."

"On this side of the House, we will fight to ensure that we protect something that all Canadians treasure, which is access to health care that is there for people, regardless of their income, regardless of their ability to pay, and we will stop at nothing to do so." (Emphasis added.)

Well, in truth, the Liberal record on making sure provinces behave themselves and abide by the terms of the Canada Health Act isn't terrible, but it isn't perfect either.

Liberal governments withheld health-care transfer payments from Alberta in the 1990s, during the Christy Clark government in British Columbia, in Quebec in the same time frame, and, at least temporarily, in New Brunswick this year when efforts were made in those provinces to evade the rules of the federal legislation.

But stopping at nothing? We'll see.

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.

Image: David J. Climenhaga​

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