Premier Jason Kenney at yesterday's news conference in Calgary's Hudsons pub. Credit: Government of Alberta video

No wonder they call it the Liquor Cabinet!

You’d think it might have occurred to someone in the United Conservative Party strategic brain trust to factor former agriculture minister Devin Dreeshen’s very recent, very public troubles with office drinking into the equation when they decided to hold a news conference about a part-time employment wage subsidy program/ in a Calgary pub.

But apparently not. 

So there was Premier Jason Kenney, seemingly unperturbed by the optics, up on his hind legs yesterday at the downtown Calgary premises of Hudsons Canada’s Pubs — a row of beer glasses for a backdrop — to announce applications were about to open for the second phase of the so-called Jobs Now Program subsidizing businesses that hire part-time workers.

The aspirational sign on the podium — no irony apparently intended — said “Alberta’s Recovery Plan.” (Emphasis added.) The sign visible behind the premier, reading “strong and free,” almost certainly wasn’t a reference to the beer sold by the bar. 

Well, since its inception, the UCP seems to have had a fixation with the vote-generating potential of alcohol — perhaps inspired by the success of Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s buck-a-beer scam

“The Alberta Jobs Now program is helping more than 14,000 Albertans get back to work and now we’re improving it so even more people can benefit,” Kenney enthused in the government’s news release.

However, the tweaks touted in that statement won’t necessarily mean more benefit for people employed under the $370-million scheme — half financed by Ottawa through a Workforce Development Agreement, although not much was made of that significant fact at yesterday’s press conference

The changes include extending eligibility to new businesses and non-profits and an end to the requirement that new hires must be unemployed, cutting in half to 15 the minimum number of hours of work required for qualifying employees, and reducing the number of days the new employees have to be kept on staff. So while the benefits to unemployed workers will be somewhat reduced, the subsidy for business — especially fast-food corporations — will be enhanced. 

And speaking of fast food, according to the premier, his friends in the hospitality industry appear to be getting the largest serving of the subsidy program’s gravy — 22 per cent in the first phase of the program, compared to 11 per cent for construction, the next highest category.

The NDP’s main gripe, though, was that the government took so long to roll out the second application intake. “This money for the training of new employees could have been in the hands of employees and in our economy during the first waves of the pandemic, but the UCP waited over a year to get a single dime out the door,” said opposition labour critic Christina Gray, noting that last month the province lost 9,000 jobs. 

According to the premier, this is because the hospitality industry was hit harder than others by COVID-19. “That’s created a rupture in their workforce,” he claimed in response to a reporter’s question. “A lot of folks who used to work in restaurants like this, who kinda gave up through COVID because of all the opening and closing.”

This is not necessarily the explanation economists give to the phenomenon of employees quitting low-wage jobs at unprecedented rates throughout North America, often called the Great Resignation. “What seems to be happening,” New York Times economics columnist Paul Krugman wrote last month, “is that the pandemic led many U.S. workers to rethink their lives and ask whether it was worth staying in the lousy jobs too many of them had.”

There’s no reason to think it’s any different in Canada, it’s said here. 

Kenney’s old pal from many a COVID-19 press conference, former health minister Tyler Shandro, now enjoying a lower profile as labour minister, was on hand. A passel of the usual suspects from the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, the Calgary, Edmonton and Alberta Chambers of Commerce, and the pub where the festivities took place lent their names to the government’s upbeat press release. 

As for the UCP’s ability to read the room, either it’s not yet fully developed even after more than two years in power, or they don’t care and are trolling us. Astonished commentators on social media seemed to be roughly split on that question.

“The only thing that would make the optics of this any worse is if Brian Jean showed up with 1/3 of the party demanding his resignation,” commented one gobsmacked tweeter.

Speaking of Jean, his name came up during the news conference when a reporter asked about the former Wildrose Party leader’s plan to run for the UCP in the Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche by-election and soon thereafter seek to replace Kenney as party leader and premier. 

“Mr. Jean did not complete his term as an MP,” Kenney reminded the journalist, accurately enough.

“He did not complete his term as an MLA. At the beginning of the 2019 provincial election, he was preparing to take over the Freedom Conservative Party, a different party. And about a few weeks ago he was indicating his desire to start a, quote, a new centrist party in Alberta.

“He’s welcome to run for the nomination, but I think that members might want to ask about how serious he is, and committed, or whether this is just another unpredictable development in his political ambitions,” said the premier, who alert readers will recall quit his own job as an MP for a more promising position in Alberta.  

“Mr. Jean’s been trying to destabilize our party for going on three years now,” Kenney complained. “I regard that as a distraction. … I’m not going to be distracted by someone trying to settle scores with internal political games.”

This raises an interesting question for Albertans — which is preferable? A politician they can’t stand who won’t stick around? Or one they can’t stand who won’t leave? 

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...