Alberta Justice Minister Kaycee Madu. Image credit: Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta/Flickr

When Alberta Justice Minister Kaycee Madu said the federal Liberals, the Alberta NDP and the media all hoped Alberta would be overwhelmed by COVID-19, he was gaslighting.

He’s just not as good at it as Premier Jason Kenney is.

Madu shouldn’t feel too bad about this. Premier Kenney is a master gaslighter. He’s really, really good at it.

Others — and Madu is just one of many in the United Conservative Party caucus and cabinet — are just never going to come up to the premier’s superlative standards of gaslighting as when he blames Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals for the failures of the UCP’s COVID-19 response or the Alberta NDP for the international price of oil.

That oil price thing was back in the day when the UCP was the Opposition, of course. Now that the shoe is on the other foot, there’s absolutely nothing anyone in Alberta can do about the world price of oil, which is influenced by factors far beyond Alberta’s control.

In case you haven’t come across the term, gaslighting is defined as a “form of psychological manipulation in which a person or a group covertly sows seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or group, making them question their own memory, perception, or judgment.” That’s from Psychology Today magazine, via a link in Wikipedia, in other words, a source sound enough for Alberta’s new social studies curriculum.

Madu’s commentary in a Facebook post would probably have been OK if he’d stuck to the point that the UCP government toughened up restrictions on behaviour that can spread COVID-19 because “I don’t think it will be responsible to simply wait until we have a disaster on our hands.”

Of course, some sour lefty like the author of this blog would have pointed out that Alberta already has a disaster on its hands, and is quickly becoming known as the Typhoid Mary of North America. Politicians in places like Michigan can point to Alberta and say, “OK, it’s terrible here, but it’s way worse in Alberta!”

But the justice minister really got into trouble when he went on to say “that’s what the NDP, the media and the federal Liberals were looking for and want. We simply couldn’t allow that to happen.”

In keeping with the traditions of the UCP, there was no chance Madu would gracefully apologize when this turned into a full-blown brouhaha, and even started being reported in other parts of the country.

“The minister was referring to the increasing tendency of different groups, including the NDP, to exploit the pandemic for their own political purposes,” huffed Madu’s press secretary in an email to the CBC.

“We see this every day with the NDP’s overcooked and incendiary rhetoric, both in the legislative assembly and on social media,” said Blaise Boehmer, who is well known for the overcooked and incendiary tone of social media commentary. “The minister won’t apologize for stating the obvious.”

“Gaslighters,” the magazine quoted above said in another column, “will often accuse you of behaviours that they are engaged in themselves. This is a classic manipulation tactic.”

I first noted this kind of behaviour on the Canadian right around 1973, the year of the murderous right-wing coup in Chile and not long after after Dave Barrett’s NDP government had been unexpectedly elected in British Columbia.

Shocked supporters of the Bennett dynasty’s Social Credit Party, as the B.C. conservative coalition was known in those days, weren’t just willing to spin lies about the Barrett government, they actually tried to persuade foreign firms to stop investing in the province.

Commentator and political activist Gerry Caplan, in a famous essay in The Globe and Mail, described how this worked when Bob Rae’s New Democrats won the Ontario election in 1990. “It is no exaggeration to say hysterical fear-mongering and sabotage was the order of the day,” he wrote in 2010. (Emphasis added.) “Corporate interests threatened a virtual strike of capital unless the government relented on its intentions to introduce higher business taxes and to strengthen union rights, environmental regulations and equity programs.”

“Some business protests bordered on the disloyal,” he wrote. “Hysterical landlords took out an ad in The Wall Street Journal warning Americans not to invest in ‘leftist Ontario.'”

Bordered on disloyal? No, I think that kind of behaviour crosses that line and, as we have seen, has been a standard part of the Conservative repertoire in Canada for half a century. During the Age of Trump, they just got worse.

So when Madu and Boehmer falsely accuse the NDP and the Liberals of hoping Alberta will be overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases, they’re just accusing them of doing what the UCP actually would do in the same situation.

It’s as clear as the cracks in the sidewalks under the light of the gas lamps.

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: Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta/Flickr

David J. Climenhaga

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 with the Globe...