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In epic flip-flop, Jason Kenney disciplines globe-trotting MLAs and sacks chief of staff

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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney less than a week ago on New Year's Eve 2020. (Image: Screenshot from UCP video).

After a weekend of unprecedented denunciation from all points of the political compass, including many of his own loyal supporters, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney yesterday folded and accepted resignations from two cabinet members and a top aide, while demoting four backbench MLAs for ignoring repeated pleas by health officials not to travel during the pandemic.

Some called it the Monday Morning Massacre, because it sounded as if there was precious little voluntary about yesterday's sudden changes, although the discipline meted out was mostly too mild for such a moniker.

Grande Prairie MLA Tracy Allard returns to the United Conservative Party back benches after only 132 days in cabinet as municipal affairs minister. She had holidayed in Hawaii while most Albertans hunkered down and obeyed restrictions designed to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Parliamentary Secretary Jeremy Nixon, the MLA for Calgary-Klein, also resigned from cabinet. The brother UCP house leader and power broker Jason Nixon also vacationed in Hawaii during December.

Kenney chief of staff Jamie Huckabay, who visited relatives in the United Kingdom, was the only one among the seven disciplined yesterday who will have to look for work. Of course, premiers do not have the power in our system to fire MLAs.

Red Deer-South MLA Jason Stephan was kicked off the Treasury Board, a prestigious appointment. MLAs Tanya Fir, Calgary-Peigan, Pat Rehn, Lesser Slave Lake, and Tany Yao, Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo, were all turfed from legislature committees.

For backbench MLAs, the punishments may hurt their pride, but won't cause much inconvenience. On the contrary, they'll have less work to do for their money.

Yao, meanwhile, is still missing in inaction somewhere in Mexico.

A supporter of former Wildrose Leader Brian Jean during the contest to lead the UCP, one imagines he has a pretty good idea what's been happening and just decided to turn off his smartphone. He seems not to have responded to Kenney's summons to travelling MLAs to get back to Wild Rose Country pronto.

Transportation Minister Ric McIver will have interim responsibility for the municipal affairs portfolio. The premier's principal secretary, Larry Kaumeyer, will act as chief of staff.

By making international travel the bar for largely symbolic sanctions, Kenney is saved from having to sack Sonya Savage, energy minister and a member of his inner circle. She drove to her Okanagan holiday home last week for "essential" property maintenance. Any other ministers whose names have not yet come to light but may have enjoyed a brief sojourn in B.C. are protected for the same reason.

"By travelling abroad over the holidays, these individuals demonstrated extremely poor judgment," the premier said in a short statement on Facebook yesterday.

Acknowledging the intense uproar over the weekend, he said, "I have listened to Albertans who are sending a clear message that they want real consequences for these actions."

It was the most epic political flip-flop in Alberta since 2014, when the Progressive Conservative caucus gave foundering premier Alison Redford a "work plan" to follow, then drove her out of office four days later. Alert readers will recall that Redford's troubles started with some expensive overseas travel too.

There was a whiff of panic in the reaction yesterday as Kenney executed his sudden course reversal.

On Friday he had praised Allard for helping keep Calgary-based WestJet in the air.

Yesterday, he threw her under the wheels of the airport bus.

On Friday, after the trips were first reported by media, he defiantly announced at a news conference there would be no consequences for any of the travellers. "I don't think it's reasonable for me as a leader to sanction people who very carefully followed the public health orders and the legal requirements," he said at the time. He offered to take the rap for their tone-deaf irresponsibility -- confident nothing could happen to him.

Yesterday he pointed right at them: "By travelling abroad over the holidays, these individuals demonstrated extremely poor judgment."

Something that Kenney may not have realized until last weekend is that Alberta is hard to govern, especially when times are tough. Generations of Progressive Conservatives made it look easy, but they had strong leadership, bench strength and more good times than bad, all of which the UCP lacks.

We'll probably never know if Premier Kenney had to endure a phone call from his former boss Stephen Harper ordering him to sort it out. Arguably, his 11th hour flip-flop made him look even less in control without doing much to change the perception his party is ethically challenged and arrogantly entitled.

However he came to the decision, he certainly heard from lots of veteran Conservatives over the weekend.

Former Progressive Conservative energy minister Mel Knight said in a Facebook post that every single MLA who travelled outside Canada "during this serious curtailment of personal freedom for most Albertans, needs to step down or be sacked by Premier Kenney." He threatened to withdraw his support if it didn't happen.

Retired radio talk jock Dave Rutherford, a tireless campaigner for merging the PC and Wildrose parties during Rachel Notley's NDP government, excoriated Kenney. On Facebook he asked, "How would this premier, who is a workaholic and micromanager, not know that a senior cabinet minister was in Hawaii?

"This is not passing the unscientific but usually accurate smell test," Rutherford continued. "Damn it, I'm pissed off that my premier, the guy in whom we had placed such high hopes for principled leadership, has ignored all of the sacrifices that we have all made to fight this virus because 'we are all in this together.' Obviously not."

I doubt there's been as strong a public reaction to a political scandal in Alberta since 1934, when United Farmers of Alberta premier John Edward Brownlee was accused of engaging in sexual misconduct with his 18-year-old secretary. That scandal certainly contributed to the election of William Aberhart's Social Credit government in 1935.

All that remains of the UFA today is a chain of mostly rural gas stations. As it tries to put Hawaiigate behind it, the UCP can concentrate its collective mind by pondering a future as a chain of electric vehicle charging stations.

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: Screenshot from UCP video

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