At 4:02 p.m. on the afternoon of Sunday, May 23, 2021, somebody pressed the “tweet” button on Jason Kenney’s Twitter account, sending an enigmatic message about the government’s response to COVID-19 whizzing into cyberspace.
Perhaps it was Kenney himself who clicked the click. Perhaps, since he is the premier or Alberta, ex officio the most important politician in the poorest little rich province of Canada, it was some flunky.
Whoever it was, the message was dangerously ambiguous.
Over a yellow poster image that reads “45 per cent of those admitted to hospital since February 1 were under the age of 50,” Premier Kenney or his amanuensis adopted a characteristic professorial tone the premier likes to explain the significance of this development to us slow-learners.
“The people that are getting ill and hospitalized now are overall younger and without compromising health conditions because we took steps to protect vulnerable Albertans first,” proclaimed Kenney, or his advisory alter ego.
“That strategy has worked. Now we just need to get everyone else vaccinated.”
“Whatever were they trying to say?” I wondered mildly when I first saw the tweet.
Other reactions were not so mild. Indeed, while the initial response on Twitter was harsh, it has grown harsher as the possible interpretations of this message percolated.
Reactions, almost universally angry, ranged from perplexed, to amused, to abusive.
It “reads like a Beaverton headline,” observed one Peter Aidan Byrne.
“I don’t even know what to say anymore,” said Jody MacPherson, an experienced professional communicator. “Your comms strategy is the absolute worst.”
“It’s government strategy that younger healthier people are getting ill and hospitalized?” asked former NDP ministerial chief of staff Tony Clark, who knows a thing or two about political communications himself. “This is all going according to plan, is it?”
Readers will get the idea from this small selection of tweets. “I’m just here for the ratio,” said Stephen Carter, once Alison Redford’s chief of staff, with an implied eyeroll.
“I’ve read this @jkenney tweet so many times & it still baffles me,” said NDP MLA Rakhi Pancholi, echoing my own sentiment. “The Premier’s plan all along was for younger Albertans to become sick & hospitalized? And he wants to be congratulated for it? Honestly, every time I think I couldn’t be more shocked by the UCP, I am.”
University of Alberta law professor Ubaka Ogbogu zeroed in on the same problem with the errant communication: “Kenney in 2020: your grandmas and grandpas can die — they have lived too long. Kenney in 2021: if I told you that it is okay for you to die because I was saving grandma and grandpa last year, would you believe me?”
So, like most else Kenney touches, this puzzling statement is turning into a damaging cause célèbre — damaging to him and his United Conservative Party, that is.
Now most of us have had the experience of letting slip with something foolish or confusing on social media, immediately regretting it, and wondering what to do next.
Most of us delete it and hope no one is watching, a luxury not available to politicians, for whom a legion of screen-shooters awaits to instantly capture any error of judgment or fact.
Still, in a case like this, surely there are more graceful ways to back away from an embarrassment than the typical strategy of the Kenney brain trust, which is to bluff it out.
Most sensible people would say, “Sorry about that, here’s what I meant to say,” and then say it.
But Kenney’s advisers — 1980s-style confrontational Thatcherites and latter-day Republicans to a man and occasional woman — hold to the view that one should never apologize, never explain. The lady, as was said of Thatcher, is not for turning.
And here we had imagined Kenney and his political advisers were brilliant strategists when they rode a wave of recessionary angst and post-boom nostalgia into power in 2019.
Albertans can be forgiven for imagining in the face or protracted low oil prices that our single-note economy could boom again if only Conservatives were restored to their rightful place in the legislature, never mind the underlying market realities.
Now they have been disabused of that notion. Kenney and the UCP chose, instead of ruling moderately and respectfully, to implement a radical program that has alienated broad swaths of the population, now including some of their keenest supporters. On a practical level, it has also failed spectacularly.
Nor did Kenney’s claque have the humility to recognize that the election of Rachel Notley and the NDP in 2015 was not a fluke, as they continue to insist, but the result of demographic change that had been slowly taking place for a long time.
Indeed, Lethbridge journalist Kim Siever wrote today on the Kenney government’s current predicament, “the UCP didn’t win as strong a mandate as they thought they did, and given how poorly the UCP have performed in the polls for the last five months, it seems that mandate has become even less strong.”
So what we first mistook for brilliance among Kenney’s advisers is revealed as the result of happenstance and momentary good luck.
Since then, we’ve learned the hard way that being good at clicking a tweet button, which UCP issues managers do scores of times every day, doesn’t mean they have enough clicks to make a clack!
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: Jason Kenney/Twitter