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Will Jason Kenney risk fracturing his right-wing coalition by enforcing new COVID-19 measures?

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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney announces tougher COVID-19 measures at yesterday's news conference. Image: Alberta Newsroom/Flickr

Better late than never, the Kenney government sharply changed course yesterday and announced much tougher lockdown measures that have the potential to slow the spread of COVID-19.

These will include closing bars, lounges, casinos, hair salons, libraries and sports studios, restricting restaurants to take-out sales, mandating indoor masking and at-home work for many employers province-wide, and banning all social gatherings, indoors or outside.

The shutdown will last at least four weeks, taking Alberta past the Christmas and New Year's holidays.

This marks a significant change from the government's past practice of portraying even easy-to-live-with measures like wearing masks in public as an unacceptable assault on the fundamental rights of citizens, and Premier Jason Kenney as an uncompromising defender of personal liberty, no matter how risky.

But while genuinely promising, there is at least one important caveat before we celebrate yesterday's announcement as a victory for common sense and renewed determination to slow the spread of the rampaging coronavirus.

To wit, the stricter rules unveiled at the afternoon COVID-19 briefing by Premier Kenney, Health Minister Tyler Shandro, Jobs, Economy and Innovation Minister Doug Schweitzer, and Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw will have to be enforced.

Can we really depend on Kenney's United Conservative Party government to do that after weeks spent loudly resisting imposing tougher restrictions as COVID-19 infections surged to the highest level among Canada's provinces?

That remains to be seen. It's possible.

The situation has certainly deteriorated dramatically in the past few weeks, justifying the change and making it clear the government's previous half-hearted measures were a flop. Having gone this far, it would certainly be embarrassing for the UCP to appear to flip-flop again.

It may also help to restore some of Kenney's lustre with out of province businesses that he hopes to woo to Alberta and which doubtless have been watching the slow-motion train wreck of the UCP trying to manage the pandemic with growing horror.

It can't look good to those potential investors that the UCP has let things slide so badly from a promising beginning that the Canadian Armed Forces may have to deploy troops to Alberta to help the province cope.

On the other hand, unlike Alberta Progressive Conservative governments of old, anti-mask and anti-vaccination sentiment runs deep in the UCP ranks, and we can expect internal dissent and resistance to surface in the party, the caucus and perhaps even the cabinet.

UCP spokespeople, busy for weeks mocking concerns about the pandemic as hysteria and calling out support for tougher measures as incipient totalitarianism, will now have to show they can turn on a dime. This is bound to disappoint and anger some of the party's most enthusiastic supporters.

Kenney, understandably, is deeply sensitive to this. Having united Alberta's divided conservative movement and defeated the NDP that exploited the PC-Wildrose party split to unexpectedly win the 2015 election, the premier's historical legacy would crumble if he proceeded to allow his right-wing coalition to fracture once again and create an opening for an NDP restoration.

Opposition leader Rachel Notley, the former NDP premier, would be happy to oblige. Recent polling, moreover, suggests she might have an opportunity.

Though it may have looked like it after its convincing electoral victory in 2019, the UCP is no monolith like the old PCs.

So what compromises would Kenney be willing to make to keep his party, which has already driven out the Red Tories who were always part of the PC party's bench strength, from further unravelling if libertarians, Wexiters and religious social conservatives break out in hives at the thought of tougher COVID-19 restrictions?

That will be one true test of the measures announced yesterday. The virus itself, which has already proved itself to be a wily and determined foe that pays no heed to the wishes of politicians or their ideologies, will be another.

Will Kenney yet decide that bodies in reefer trucks pose less of a threat to his coalition than upsetting sensitive Alberta libertarians' fragile feelings? That remains to be seen.

One thing that has not changed about the premier's strategy is his reliance on the arrival and distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine. Vaccines are the silver bullet he imagines will let him end the lockdown as soon and painlessly as possible and return to his agenda of privatizing public services and cutting public service jobs before it's too late in the electoral cycle.

If it takes too long, he may be able to inoculate himself against political failure by blaming Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberal federal government. He will certainly try.

Such concerns may explain the four-day delay before some of the new measures go into effect, although the masking mandate or the ban on social gatherings start immediately.

Certainly Kenney's need to keep his religious supporters sweet explains his continued reluctance to shut down worship services for the duration. He's already promised never to force anyone to have a vaccination.

Likewise, the need to shore up his coalition explains the uncharacteristic willingness of his supposedly deficit-shy government to provide modest subsidies to keep businesses afloat -- if not anything for individual workers impacted by the lockdown.

So don't get distracted wondering whether Shandro and Schweitzer were starting pandemic beards yesterday, if Schweitzer was only pretending to apply hand sanitizer when he stepped up to the podium, or what it was Hinshaw had to tell the cabinet to persuade them to take yesterday's measures.

Kenney is the man to watch now.

There were 1,727 new COVID-19 cases reported in Alberta yesterday.

There were 20,388 active cases in the province and 654 people in hospital with the disease, 116 of them in intensive care. Nine more people are known to have died from the disease, bringing the total in Alberta since the start of the pandemic to 640.

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: Alberta Newsroom/Flick​r

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