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Jason Kenney claims ignorance about Alberta justice minister's COVID commentary

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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney at yesterday's COVID-19 news conference. Image: Screenshot of Government of Alberta video

The internet let out a collective gasp yesterday afternoon when Alberta Premier Jason Kenney was caught telling an obvious whopper.

Well, perhaps not the whole internet, but that portion fascinated by political affairs in Canada's westernmost Prairie province, tuning in to discover why Kenney had insisted once again on being part of Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw's daily COVID-19 briefing.

In the event, Kenney didn't have much to announce, beyond saying he expects the province's two-millionth vaccine dose to be injected today, which would sound like more of an accomplishment were Alberta not still suffering the highest COVID-19 infection rate in Confederation. A total of 1,449 new cases were reported yesterday, bringing the number of active cases in the province to 24,998. Three more Albertans died of the disease.

Kenney also announced an advertising campaign to try to persuade the many vaccine-shy Albertans to get their jabs.

But the premier did agree to accept a few questions afterward from reporters, which is where things got interesting.

Asked by a journalist about the outrage sparked by Justice Minister Kaycee Madu's breathtaking assertion the day before that federal Liberals, Alberta New Democrats and media all hope Alberta will be overwhelmed by the coronavirus, the premier smoothly responded, "I haven't seen those comments, but ..."

… But "I believe no one wants the pandemic, I've said that may times, and we shouldn't be pointing fingers," he piously went on.

Naturally, everyone paying attention realized at the same instant Alberta's premier had just uttered a monumental fib.

It hardly seems possible that Kenney was unaware of what Madu had said the day before. The man's a notorious micromanager of his government's communications efforts -- often to their detriment. He is briefed regularly by a legion of issues managers on the day's new stories. This certainly included Madu's gaffe.

Even if he hadn't been, it would have been drawn to his attention once a solemn Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had weighed in.

"I think it's a shame to see people pointing fingers and laying blame and suggesting that anyone in Canada wants anything else than to get through this pandemic as safely as possible, everywhere," Trudeau said earlier in the day. "Playing politics at this point is just not what Canadians want to see."

Like everyone else after four years of Donald Trump in the White House, Albertans have become inured to bare-faced liars in high places. Still, it was unusual for so many people to reach the same conclusion at the same time.

"Is there a single person in Alberta that believes that Jason Kenney hasn't seen the comments that were posted by Minister Madu yesterday?" University of Alberta economist Andrew Leach, a vocal critic of the government, asked wonderingly via tweet.

"I don't even think Jason Kenney believes that Jason Kenney hasn't seen Madu's comments," added Mount Royal University political scientist Duane Bratt.

"There is no way that is possibly true," CBC reporter Michelle Bellefontaine tweeted impatiently, possibly annoyed that she's among the reporters who never get a chance to ask a question at these virtual news conferences, unlike the Postmedia columnists whose wordy softballs help the premier run out the clock. "Premiers get briefed every day on issues," she stated.

"I'll take a look at the comments and talk to Kaycee," Kenney said, thereby leaving Madu without much choice but to recant.

"I would like to offer an apology for my recent comments on my personal Facebook account," the justice minister tweeted a couple of hours later, notwithstanding his press secretary's defiant assertion the day before he had no need to do so. "My comments were wrong, as all Canadians want this global pandemic to end as soon as possible."

With that, as these things tend to go, the furor will probably die down soon enough.

More significant, perhaps, than the evidence of Kenney's often-casual relationship to the truth was his seemingly unintended revelation of what he really thinks about public health care.

Responding to a rambling question by a Postmedia columnist frequently favoured with one of the limited number of questions at these virtual news conferences, the signer of 2019's "Public Health Guarantee" launched into a revealing soliloquy about the number of available ICU beds in Texas, compared with Alberta.

"This is something that we really need to realize as a country," Kenney said, apparently pulling his factoids from a 2019 Fraser Institute study, "the Americans have way more hospital capacity. Health care is big business in the States. They spend 17 per cent of their economy on health and we spend 11 per cent here. And they have redundant capacity because they have a competitive system. We have a single-payer system so we have by nature a rationed system." (Emphasis added, since any rationing is a political decision.)

I don't know about you, but I've never before heard the fact that the U.S. health-care system costs taxpayers vastly more than Canada's public system while still leaving the equivalent of the entire population of Canada completely uninsured presented as if that were a good thing!

Kenney government names former general as DM of health

Also yesterday, the Kenney government appointed Paul Wynnyk, Jason Kenney's favourite former general, as deputy minister of health.

The appointment doesn't seem to have rated a press release, it was merely mentioned in dispatches. In orders in council, I mean.

Formerly the DM of municipal affairs, the senior civil servant had previously been deployed to lead the province's "COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force."

Well, arguably the appointment of a former lieutenant general to this role makes sense, as the UCP government's war on doctors can hardly be called a success, and with contract negotiations with several health-care unions now under way the department may soon be called upon to wage war on all health-care workers.

As befits a former Canadian senior military officer, the Russians have been keeping a close eye on Wynnyk's performance in his civilian role in Alberta.

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 of Government of Alberta video

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