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Reversal on COVID-19 vaccine timing shows Canada's Conservatives can turn on a dime

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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney at Edmonton International Airport. Image: Jason Kenney/Twitter

You can hardly blame the United Conservative Party's leaders for trying to get out there as quickly as possible to take credit for the arrival of the first planeloads of COVID-19 vaccine in Alberta.

Premier Jason Kenney, who evidently enjoys cosplay, even got dressed up as a UPS deliveryman and ran out on the tarmac at Calgary International Airport to greet the first airliner to roll up to the gate with the stuff on board.

The production, acquisition and delivery of the vaccine is a big story by any measure and shows signs of being a significant success. As the old saw goes, success has many parents, even if failure is supposedly an orphan.

Well, who can deny that the vaccines now arriving at airports across Canada a few days before the new year do promise a metaphorical light at the end of the long, dark tunnel that 2020 turned into thanks to the novel coronavirus?

Not to begrudge these smiling Prairie Conservatives a legitimate reason for rejoicing, none of them seemed much inclined to acknowledge that we're as far down the tunnel as we are in this province because of the mismanagement of the pandemic by the very same Kenney who was at the airport waving to the pilots.

Nor did they give any credit to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose Liberal federal government seems literally to be delivering the goods, whatever you may think of their policies on a broader range of issues.

In fact, the silence of Alberta's Conservatives when it came to giving credit where credit is due was positively deafening.

That said, you can say this about the UCP, and the rest of Canada's Conservatives too: they sure can turn on a dime!

It was only days ago, after all, that they were loudly and all but unanimously predicting that the vaccine rollout was going to be a total bust -- and it was all going to be Trudeau's fault.

"We don't know the first date vaccines will be received," federal Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole grumbled darkly on a CBC program at the end of last month. "Most of our allies do. In fact, the U.K. and the U.S. will start receiving them in the next few days. Canadians are going to be asking questions and they deserve answers."

"Another blunder by the Trudeau Liberals, placing Canada at the back of the line for the vaccine," the Conservative Party of Canada tweeted portentously last fall. "All because they continue to trust China.

"Canada's Conservatives, led by @ErinOTooleMP, will stand up to China," the tweet added, with the faint echo of a dogwhistle lingering.

Canada is "at the back of the line," complained Blake Richards, the frequently intemperate Conservative MP for Banff-Airdrie who is now O'Toole's party whip, in a similar tweet, which appears to have been deleted.

A Conservative Party meme complained that "Canada no longer has any production capacity for vaccines," omitting to mention that it was Conservative PM Brian Mulroney who privatized and sold off Crown-owned Connaught Laboratories, Canada's storied vaccine maker.

"Without a plan for vaccines, there can be no long-term plan for our economy," O'Toole huffed in the CBC interview. "This is a debacle."

Some debacle! Indeed, Canada's vaccine rollout is starting to look quite un-debacle-like.

Arguably, in their indecent hurry to find something with which they could smear Prime Minister Trudeau, the federal Conservatives -- who often seem like not much more than the UCP's Ottawa farm team -- forgot to do a little reverse expectation management to ensure their supporters knew the federal vaccine distribution plan might actually work out OK.

Now that it seems to be rolling out quite smoothly, thank you very much, they're all jumping aboard as if it were their idea and the federal Liberals had nothing to do with it.

This is ungraceful at best, and makes them look foolish to anyone who has actually been paying attention -- a group, presumably, that doesn't include many core Conservative supporters.

Of course, it's early days yet. Something could still go wrong. If it does, I expect we will see the Conservatives try to quickly pivot back to blaming Trudeau.

Having jumped aboard the vaccine bandwagon, though, it may not be quite as easy for them to jump off again.

Yesterday, UCP Mental Health Minister Jason Luan tweeted enthusiastically: "3 more months to go for the final push before we can return to our normal life."

Vaccinations will be all wrapped up in Alberta and the virus eradicated by mid-March? Seriously? That seems hardly likely even if the UCP has nothing to do with the distribution.

Albertans are bound to be unhappy if they're still waiting for vaccine come next fall, which is probably why Luan tried to walk back his tweet a few hours later.

Surely this indicates that Alberta's Conservatives aren't any better at expectation management than their federal brethren.

Erin O'Toole busted misrepresenting the past

Speaking of not knowing when to keep their lips zipped, O'Toole has been busted defending the intentions of the founders of the residential school system as honourable, saying they meant merely to "provide education" to Indigenous students.

"When Egerton Ryerson was called in … it was meant to try and provide education," he said in a Zoom talk to the Conservative Club at Toronto's Ryerson University, whose 19th-century namesake has been criticized for his role in creating the residential school system.

"It became a horrible program that really harmed people and we have to learn from that and I wear orange. But we're not helping anyone by misrepresenting the past."

"Most of the lefty radicals are also the dumbest people at your university," O'Toole also told the campus Cons.

His remarks were posted by Conservative Club members in a video noticed by PressProgress, suggesting that the Opposition leader might not have got that last observation quite right.

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: Jason Kenney/Twitter​

Editor's note, December 17, 2020: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Jason Kenney dressed as a UPS delivery man for a visit to Edmonton International Airport. In fact, he visited Calgary International Airport. The story has been corrected.

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