Alberta's new health minister, former labour minister Jason Copping, is sworn into his new position on Sept. 21. Image: Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta/Flickr

VICTORIA — Say what you will about Jason Kenney, he never fails to disappoint.

When the buzz hit social media yesterday morning that Alberta’s premier would attempt to shore up his shaky perch atop Alberta’s government with a post-federal-election cabinet shuffle, the assumption was natural that he was about to make Health Minister Tyler Shandro walk the plank.

This was said definitively by a number of astute observers of Alberta politics — your blogger not among them as he was helpless in an airport waiting lounge gazing at a computer with a flat battery.

There was speculation aplenty about who might replace Shandro and what other dramatic comings and goings could take place.

In the event, like a bad joke, the only deck chairs to be shuffled aboard the SS Kenney as it steamed through the darkness were the ones occupied by Shandro and Labour Minister Jason Copping.

Shandro, having presided over the meltdown of the provincial health care system, will be shuffled to the labour portfolio. There, he can continue Kenney’s war on health care unions, the technical details of which were worked out on Copping’s watch.

Copping, having introduced unconstitutional legislation intended to make it difficult for labour unions to operate in Alberta, will be shuffled into the health portfolio, to go down with the ship, I suppose.

That is all! That is all! Cocktails will be served in the captain’s lounge at four bells!

Readers must forgive me the maritime metaphors. I am in a seaport town, attending to some family business.

So, all that excitement, and all we got was a job swap?

A job swap, moreover, between two lawyers with little evidence in their potted biographies that would suggest an understanding of the complexities of the health care system?

So it would seem.

Both men are political lightweights, with little experience when they were elected in the 2019 provincial election. There is no evidence either has the political chops to cope with a major crisis, let alone an unquestionable disaster like what’s happening in Alberta’s health care system now.

Copping does at least have a background in labour relations. Shandro’s legal career seems to have involved sitting on a lot of boards, although he once acted as a lawyer who threatened to sue a blogger for a former Alberta premier.

None of this bodes well for the future. It’s hard to imagine that anyone could do a worse job in the health portfolio than Shandro has. This is reason to hold out some modest hope for Copping’s chances, I guess.

What was needed for a job like this, if I may be so bold, is an old political pro like Ric McIver, now minister of municipal affairs in Kenney’s cabinet, to be sent in to get things under control.

McIvor too was in the news yesterday — asking the new Liberal government in Ottawa — almost exactly the same as the old Liberal government in Ottawa — for immediate help to save the province’s imploding health care system.

In a letter yesterday, McIver asked federal Public Safety Minister Bill Blair for help flying gravely ill patients to other provinces with ICU capacity and for Registered Nurses and respiratory therapists with ICU experience, like those on whom Shandro has been waging war, to help out in Alberta. Shandro did not sign the letter.

The timing of the request was noted by many. Despite the desperate state of many Alberta hospitals, nothing was said until after Monday’s federal election, presumably for fear reporters would ask more difficult questions of Opposition Leader Erin O’Toole about his previous enthusiasm for Kenney’s disastrous approach to COVID-19.

“They put the politics of the Conservative Party at large ahead of the needs of Albertans and those front-line health-care workers who are working desperately in our hospitals to keep people alive,” observed NDP Opposition Leader Rachel Notley.

Early in the afternoon, assured of a broad public audience, Blair tweeted: “Federal officials have been engaging their counterparts in Alberta for the past week to offer help.” (Emphasis added.) “I have made it clear that when a request is received, it will be approved. We will work together to provide for the people across Alberta.”

McIver, I expect, will have the diplomatic sense to ignore this revelation and get on with the job.

For his part, Kenney claimed that Alberta didn’t actually need the federal support it’s asking for, it’s just being prudent in case it does. That’s certainly not what health-care workers employed in Alberta’s hospitals say.

It would seem that for all his efforts to channel Churchillian toughness in a crisis, Kenney lacks the grit to do what sometimes must be done in a dangerous and deteriorating situation, as now exists in Alberta as the fourth wave of COVID-19 rips through the unvaccinated segment of the population, overwhelming the health care system.

Shandro needed to be fired — sent to the backbenches for the good of the province and, arguably, for the good of the governing party as well. Kenney did not have the wherewithal to do that.

Instead, Kenney lauded Shandro at a COVID-19 briefing yesterday afternoon, saying, interestingly, that he had accepted his resignation as minister of health. The next chapter in this saga, it is now assumed, will be an effort by members of his own UCP caucus to push the premier out the door for their own preservation.

Kenney implied at yesterday’s COVID news conference that he has no intention of going down without a fight.

Yesterday, 29 people died from COVID-19 in Alberta. There are now close to 21,000 active COVID cases in the province. There are 996 COVID patients in hospital — a record, of course — and 222 of them are in intensive care.

So perhaps it’s no wonder Kenney was reluctant to appoint McIver as health minister because his services may soon be required to step in as interim premier as the party’s Calgary and rural anti-vaccination factions figure out who will replace the foundering leader of their ironically named party.

A mandatory, in-person, UCP caucus meeting is scheduled to take place today.

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...