Jason Kenney flips pancakes at the Calgary Stampede. Image: Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta/Flickr

Who says Albertans don’t have influence in Confederation?

Jason Kenney proved once again on Wednesday that an Alberta political leader, just by calling a news conference and speaking a few words, can single-handedly influence the course of a federal election!

One imagines, though, Alberta’s premier would have preferred not to have influenced the 2021 federal election quite the way he did.

Kenney did it by admitting Wednesday that he and his United Conservative Party messed up spectacularly with their high-risk Best Summer Ever strategy of reopening the economy in time for the Calgary Stampede in July, thereby setting the stage for the collapse of Alberta’s health care system in September as unvaccinated COVID-19 victims packed the province’s hospitals.

The effect on the federal election campaign of Conservative Party of Canada Leader Erin O’Toole wasn’t good — although it’s a couple of days to soon to say whether it will prove to be catastrophic. Federal Conservatives were furious. They thought Kenney had promised to keep his lips zipped until after the election.

The federal Opposition leader’s campaign looked yesterday like it had thrown a rotor blade when reporters started rudely asking the former helicopter crewman about his past enthusiastic endorsements of Kenney’s way of dealing with the pandemic.

series of tweets with video clips posted yesterday morning by CBC Parliamentary reporter Travis Dhanraj showed the Conservative leader’s desperate efforts at a news conference in St. John to avoid answering reporters’ questions about his enthusiasm for Kenney without actually running out of the room.

In the first, a reporter can be heard saying, “you have said that Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has handled COVID far better than Justin Trudeau. With what we’re seeing in that province now, do you still think that’s the case?”

That seems pretty clear. But O’Toole responded by saying, “as prime minister I would work with all premiers, regardless of stripe, to fight against the pandemic,” and blaming Trudeau for the cost of the election.

“I want to follow up on that question, said the next reporter. Unfortunately you didn’t answer it again. And I think Canadians are sitting at home wondering about the pandemic itself. So, not specifically about this election, who do you think did a better job handling the pandemic? Provincial Premier Jason Kenney, or Prime Minister Justin Trudeau?”

“Canadians are sitting at home, as you said, wondering why we’re in an election,” O’Toole started to respond…

“No, I asked about…,” interjected the second reporter, as the newser began to degenerate into O’Toole trying to speak over the reporters and reporters shouting, “Please answer the question, Mr. O’Toole!”

No need to go on transcribing. Readers can listen for themselves. It’s not very illuminating, but it is entertaining to watch O’Toole stick manfully to his information-free talking points. The reporters sound frustrated, as they might well be. O’Toole sounds as if he’s prevaricating.

The point is, it’s certainly not the way the Conservatives would have hoped to be spending the final hours of an election campaign in which their leader had been doing pretty well for a while. And it’s certainly not going to help him eke out a victory.

Yesterday evening, CTV news reporters were tweeting that O’Toole, unlike all the other party leaders, had cancelled a scheduled interview with CTV News and refused to reschedule. Well, it’s not hard to figure out what his problem is.

“I have had an off-the-record conversation with a longstanding senior Conservative backroom actor,” tweeted Mount Royal University political science professor Duane Bratt. “He says that not only has Kenney sewered the UCP in 2023, and the CPC federally in 2021, but has set back the Conservative movement in Alberta for a decade.”

I’ve never seen “sewer” used as a verb before, but it sort of works.

The O’Toole Conservative campaign has three days to come up with a strategy to remedy Premier Kenney’s reverse Midas touch.

Victory Calgary Stampede 1919? Say what?

For his part, Kenney took to Facebook Live last night, where he can pick the questions, lean back and answer without fear of shouted interjections. So never mind that.

But what was with that “Victory Calgary Stampede 1919” pennant on the wall behind him? No chance it just landed there and no one noticed.

Is this Kenney’s way of telling us he still thinks COVID was just “an influenza”? (Alert readers will recall that 1919 was the year of the 1918 Spanish Flu’s deadly second wave.) Or was he saying that the Stampede really matters more than anything else in Alberta? Or what?

Given the gravity of the circumstances, let’s just say the visual doesn’t seem to be in particularly good taste. One wonders who among the premier’s aides came up with that one, or if it was an inspiration of the great man himself?

UCP caucus dirty laundry flaps on the line

Meanwhile, also yesterday, Calgary Fish Creek MLA Richard Gotfried took to Facebook to make sure voters understood that he, at least, had been advocating for stronger measures to combat COVID back in the summertime.

“I am frustrated, embarrassed and angry that such defensible measures weren’t taken 30 days ago, but I will have to live with the solace that my outspoken internal advocacy finally bore fruit, albeit a day late and a few hundred ICU beds short,” Gotfried said, trowelling it on.

This is the political equivalent of throwing oneself on the mercy of the court, probably not very persuasive to voters. But any old port in a storm.

The government “clearly had 30 days’ notice that a crisis was looming,” Gotfried also said, revealingly. “Nothing was done while we lacked any leadership at the helm.” The point of that seems pretty clear.

Former cabinet minister Leela Aheer, the Chesteremere-Rockyview MLA who was kicked out of cabinet by Kenney in June for daring to suggest he should apologize for his boozy and embarrassing mid-pandemic Sky Palace patio party, soon retweeted a link to the CBC’s story.

Kenney’s acting press secretary, Harrison Fleming, publicly denied Gotfried’s account.

Needless to say, such disputatiousness among a premier’s staff and his MLAs is probably not a sign of a caucus that’s functioning like a winning team.

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: Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta/Flickr


David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...