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Alberta Speaker, who opposed COVID-19 restrictions, cites pandemic 'health concerns' to extend legislature shutdown

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Alberta Speaker Nathan Cooper. Image credit: David J. Climenhaga

Alberta Speaker Nathan Cooper, one of the United Conservative Party MLAs known as the COVID 18 who last month signed a controversial letter opposing their own government's COVID-19 restrictions, has issued a memorandum saying the Alberta legislature will stay closed "due to the ongoing public health concerns arising from the pandemic."

It's tempting to say you can't make this stuff up, but this is Alberta, so you never need to.

Cooper had his knuckles rapped by Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and quickly apologized for lending his name to the April 7 letter opposing COVID-19 restrictions signed by about a quarter of the UCP legislative caucus.

"I engaged on a matter of political discourse that may have raised questions about the impartiality of the chair," he told the legislature on April 12. "Upon quiet reflection, and given the benefit of time, I have regret for my error in judgment." Readers will note that while Cooper regretted his judgment, he didn't recant his criticism of the government's COVID-mitigation measures.

Cooper didn't have much choice but to apologize, of course. His party leader, Premier Kenney, had just gotten finished saying publicly that "the long-standing convention, of course, is for Speakers to scrupulously maintain their neutrality, and in my 24 years as a parliamentarian, I cannot ever recall the Speaker having violated that until last week."

That, however, was then. This is now.

On May 2, a Sunday, UCP House Leader Jason Nixon announced the government was shutting down the legislature for two weeks "to prevent further spread of COVID-19."

That caused many eyerolls. The prevailing consensus was that the Kenney government was shutting down the legislature to avoid embarrassment from the inevitable Opposition questions about how the province came to have the worst COVID-19 infection rate in North America, not to mention growing outrage about the UCP's amateurish primary school curriculum rewrite.

Since then, there has been only marginal improvement in the COVID statistics, which remain the worst on the continent, and Premier Kenney's reluctant adoption of slightly stricter mitigation measures has brought him into increasing conflict with his former allies on Alberta's far right.

Cypress-Medicine Hat MLA Drew Barnes, seen as one of the ringleaders of the COVID 18, has not been silenced, but continues to assail the government, and demand more when the premier has gone along with his wishes.

Meanwhile, Premier Kenney's adoption of regional restrictions that spare COVID 18 MLAs' ridings from unpopular but effective measures have been sharply criticized by health-care professionals and members of the Opposition NDP.

All this would have doubtless drawn sharp queries in the legislature's question period.

Politically speaking, in other words, things aren't significantly different than they were two weeks ago, when Nixon arbitrarily shut down the legislature without consulting the Opposition, as he claimed to have done at the time.

So now the legislature will remain closed for another week, and the long weekend after that. And then? Well, sitting is scheduled to resume on May 25.

Meanwhile, Cooper said in yesterday's memo, he and his staff are "working on a number of ways to increase the ability of members to participate in the assembly remotely." That may be possible, he said, when the legislature resumes.

It's odd no effort seems to have been made up to now. They've been conducting remote votes for a year in the House of Commons, and last week introduced a speedy new voting app. Those Albertans working from home since March 2020 understand this isn't exactly what Ralph Klein used to call rocket surgery.

If Cooper had any evidence to proffer that he'd already done something, that might have taken some of the sting from NDP House Leader Christina Gray's observation yesterday that "while millions of Albertans continue to go to work and do their jobs, Jason Kenney and his UCP MLAs are refusing to show up."

On the other hand, from the government's perspective, at least she wasn't saying it in the House while the cameras rolled and Hansard recorded it all for perpetuity.

"We are in the midst of a crisis and we have critical work to do," Gray said. Work, obviously, that includes holding Premier Kenney to account for his government's appalling mishandling of the pandemic and other failures.

"On Monday, Albertans will show up to work across this province in our hospitals and grocery stores, industrial facilities and other essential workplaces, but Jason Kenney will not," Gray said. "Why is Jason Kenney's safety more important than the safety of these essential workers?"

Likely because this isn't really about safety as much as avoiding public criticism until there's something more positive to report.

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 credit: David J. Climenhaga

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