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Jason Kenney tries an end-run around his rebellious caucus

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

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney used the daily COVID-19 briefing yesterday to send a message directly to the supporters of his opposition in the legislature.

Not the official NDP Opposition. Those guys aren't the premier's biggest problem just now, especially with the legislature still shuttered, supposedly to reduce the threat to politicians from the coronavirus pandemic.

No, it was the COVID-dismissing, mostly rural opposition inside his own United Conservative Party that Premier Kenney's news conference message appeared to have been crafted to counter.

Kenney's effort to put the fear of COVID into those UCP supporters who have been pressing their MLAs to resist pandemic restrictions in the deluded belief everything's worse in the city seems to have been a key goal of Kenney's appearance at the afternoon news conference.

He conscripted Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw and Alberta Health Services CEO Verna Yiu to lend a little medical and scientific credibility to his effort.

There's been a belief in large swathes of Alberta, the premier said, "that COVID-19 is a big city problem and not a rural one."

"But this couldn't be further from the truth," he averred.

True enough, although Kenney himself has contributed to this dangerous misapprehension.

The truth, Kenney went on, is that "throughout the pandemic, people living in rural areas of the province have been more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 than people living in large urban areas. Since February of this year, hospitalization rates are 26 per cent higher, and ICU rates are 30 per cent higher in rural areas than in urban ones."

"Right now, several of the regions that are showing the highest rates of COVID-19 per capita are outside the bigger cities," he went on in a tone of voice that suggested he might be as astounded by this discovery as some of his dissident caucus members. "Some of these areas are reporting rates that are higher than Calgary, and in some cases rates that are two times higher than Edmonton!"

This is a good message to get out there, although plenty of Albertans wondered about the timing, after months of the premier's nudges and winks about the coronavirus to his skeptical base. "Is it just me, or does 14 months into a pandemic seem a little late for a myth-busting press conference?" asked the Globe's Emma Graney.

"The point is simply," Kenney told the newser, "this is not an urban-versus-rural issue."

Yet this is exactly what the premier's government has made it, with its constant pandering to the supposedly unique virtue of rural folk, which many have apparently come to imagine extends even unto natural immunity to disease.

"It's clear that COVID-19 is everywhere in the province, and people's lives matter just as much no matter where they live," the premier said.

This homily would be astonishing to anyone who hadn't been paying attention to the attitude of moral superiority rural voters have been encouraged to hold about their urban counterparts by cynical conservative politicians all over North America. Surely that was a contributing factor to the confidence of the COVID deniers who make up more than a quarter of the UCP caucus in the legislature.

Last week, Kenney reluctantly tried to put down the open rebellion against COVID-19 restrictions in his caucus by banishing two of the most vocal rural dissidents to the corner of the legislature reserved for Independent MLAs.

After a seven-hour caucus meeting Thursday afternoon and evening -- which doesn't bode well for Kenney's ability to control future caucus uprisings -- the party sent Cyprus-Medicine Hat MLA Drew Barnes and Central Peace-Notley MLA Todd Loewen packing.

Barnes had been the caucus bad boy for months, advocating Alberta separatism, undermining the government's inadequate COVID-19 mitigation efforts, and occasionally daring the premier to discipline him. The day before, Loewen, up to then the caucus chair, had posted a letter on Facebook accusing Premier Kenney of arrogantly ignoring the views of his MLAs and calling on him to resign.

Whether or not Kenney's attempted end-run around his own MLAs will work remains an open question. It reduced the group of COVID-skeptical UCP MLAs known mockingly as the COVID 18 to 16, but it doesn't solve Kenney's problem with pushback from their recalcitrant rural supporters.

The premier's recitation yesterday of "proven scientific information" likely comes too late to quell a rebellion by MLAs who have come to accept the quaint notion that infectious diseases and crime only happen in big cities.

Indeed, the premier's optimism that "when presented with the facts, people overwhelmingly will do the right thing," expressed again yesterday, has been remarkably ineffective up to now -- leaving Alberta with the highest COVID-19 infection rate in North America.

His pitch to rural voters over the heads of his own MLAs illustrates how seriously he takes his political problem, as well as how entrenched skepticism and outright hostility to COVID-19 mitigation measures remains in rural Alberta.

Characteristically, Kenney soon turned to promises of sunny days ahead if only we'll all behave ourselves. Can another flip-flop in time to let the Calgary Stampede prematurely open its gates in July be far away?

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 Alberta government video

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