With COVID-19 out of control, the United Conservative Party government clueless and divided, ordinary citizens increasingly frightened, and defiant covidiots organizing super-spreader events like that no-more-lockdowns rodeo in Bowden Saturday, Premier Jason Kenney adopted his crisis response of choice.
Cut and run.
This time, though, instead of heading to Vancouver to fundraise for the B.C. Liberals, leading his caucus out of the legislature rather than have them vote on an NDP abortion clinic buffer-zone bill, or conveniently self-isolating at home when tough questions were going unanswered about vacationing MLAs in the middle of a pandemic, Alberta’s premier has suspended the legislature for two weeks.
Was the suspension really “to prevent further spread of COVID-19 and not due to any confirmed cases amongst MLAs or staff,” as the government claimed in its unusual Sunday news release?
Or was it to avoid having to answer questions in the House about how Alberta came to have the highest rate of COVID-19 infections in North America, and what the premier intends to do about the quarter of his own party’s caucus who are openly encouraging defiance of the inadequate COVID-mitigation measures his cabinet has put in place?
You be the judge.
It is true that many of the UCP’s COVID denial caucus couldn’t be trusted not to have contracted the virus while they were back in their ridings for constituency week.
But the questions were bound to be tough. The opposition led by NDP Leader Rachel Notley is feeling feisty, leading in the polls, and catching the whiff of panic over the government benches.
And, face it, with daily new COVID cases surging toward 3,000, breaking records every day, more than 22,500 active cases in the province, and Alberta reporting higher COVID-19 infection rates than every Canadian province and territory, and every U.S. state as well, his government owns this crisis.
It would be fair to say, in that venerable Canadian political phrase, there is a fury in the land.
When the phrase found its way into the Canadian political lexicon, it was directed at prime minister Brian Mulroney. But don’t worry, Kenney will soon be as unpopular as Mulroney was in the last days of his government, if he isn’t already.
It doesn’t look good on Kenney either that he left it to UCP House Leader Jason Nixon to do the dirty work and make the announcement.
“With COVID-19 continuing to spread across Alberta, the government has determined that having MLAs return to Edmonton from all over the province after constituency week is no longer prudent,” Nixon was quoted piously saying in the news release. “Suspending proceedings is the right thing to do as case counts increase.”
Furious critics of all stripes were quick to point out that the UCP has no scruples about doing nothing for front-line workers — from ICU nurses to minimum-wage convenience store clerks — who have had to work through this pandemic, and continue to be there for Albertans.
When Nixon chides us all to follow the rules and reminds us “we all have to do our part to get through to the other side of this pandemic,” it makes the opposition want to ask why the government won’t do the things it has the power to do, like impose a real lockdown (as it has never done), enforce the rules, and get its COVID deniers under control.
As for Nixon’s claim in the government news release the opposition was consulted, that turned out not to be strictly accurate. They were told, tweeted Notley’s chief of staff, Jeremy Nolais. “Let’s put it this way,” he said, Nixon “consulted with Alberta’s NDP about closing the legislature just about as much as he consulted with Albertans writ large before signing over our Rocky Mountains to billionaire-backed coal-mining companies.”
The NDP was uncharacteristically tough in its response to this development. “It is incredibly cowardly and hypocritical for Jason Kenney to claim it is not safe for him to come to work, when all of these folks, none of whom or very few of whom have sick leave, unlike the Premier and his House leader, have to go to work,” Notley told reporters yesterday.
When times are good, Kenney likes to go all Churchillian and play the tough guy. “The work of democracy does not end in a crisis,” he said at this time last year. “The British House of Commons met every day during the blitz of the Luftwaffe on London.”
But whenever the going gets tough, tough-guy Kenney gets going — although leaving the legislature padlocked behind him in the middle of a serious crisis is a new one.
Whether or not the premier is actually in trouble with his own party, remains to be seen. As one astute political observer asked yesterday: “Is it just me or is the political crisis in Alberta starting to feel like the week before Redford resigned?” It is, but despite the shift in the premier’s fortunes — which notwithstanding the random nature of the pandemic, is almost entirely self-inflicted — we’re likely going to be stuck with him for quite a while yet.
But if you want to know where most Albertans are now, hearken to the words Texan Lyndon B. Johnson, then the Senate majority leader in Washington, famously spoke to the press about Richard Nixon: “Boys, I may not know much, but I do know the difference between chicken shit and chicken salad.”
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