Alberta Premier Jason Kenney replaced his health minister as hospitals in the province fill with COVID-19 patients and he faces growing anger from within his own party over his handling of the pandemic.
Jason Copping was sworn in as Health Minister on Tuesday afternoon. He replaces Tyler Shandro, who along with the Alberta Premier has been the main political spokesman of the pandemic. Mr. Shandro will take over from Mr. Copping as Minister of Labour and Immigration.
Speaking with reporters later in the day, the Premier gave little explanation for the switch. Mr. Kenney praised Mr. Shandro’s work ethic but said, “It is time for a fresh start, and a new set of eyes on the largest department in the government, especially at a time such as this.”
Mr. Kenney addressed the stress of the job, and mentioned an incident at a public Canada Day event where protesters against health restrictions surrounded Mr. Shandro, his wife and two young sons, screaming profanities and insults.
The province’s hospitals are facing a major capacity crisis. There are 222 COVID-19 patients in intensive-care units, non-urgent surgeries have been postponed, and front-line workers are preparing triage protocols for determining which patients are eligible for the highest level of care.
Mr. Kenney’s leadership is also facing new turmoil. His party and caucus are divided on COVID-19 measures, including health restrictions and the province’s new vaccine passport system.
Two United Conservative Party MLAs told The Globe and Mail that the Premier is expected to face a vote of confidence during a caucus meeting on Wednesday. The Globe is not naming the two MLAs to allow them to discuss internal party matters.
Also, a number of UCP constituency associations are pushing for an earlier leadership review – before the fall of 2022, when it’s now scheduled.
One day after a federal vote in which a minority Liberal government returned to office, Mr. Kenney’s government formally requested help from Ottawa with “contingency plans” of possibly transferring patients out of the province, as well as help with finding ICU registered nurses and respiratory therapists to come to Alberta.
Federal Public Safety Minister Bill Blair – re-elected on Monday – replied that federal officials “have been engaging their counterparts in Alberta for the past week to offer help.”
“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,” Mr. Blair tweeted.
On Tuesday, one of the MLAs who spoke to The Globe said around 20 MLAs were prepared to vote against the Premier. The other MLA said there is no agenda for the Wednesday caucus meeting, but a group of MLAs plan to introduce a no-confidence motion regarding Mr. Kenney’s leadership.
University of Calgary political scientist Lisa Young said Mr. Kenney is in the “fight for his political career.” She said Tuesday’s cabinet switch is unlikely to move the dial because the Premier has been seen as calling the shots in the pandemic, and because it does nothing to change the fundamental divisions in his party about how to handle COVID-19.
However, Prof. Young said as much as there is widespread disappointment with Mr. Kenney’s leadership, “Is this the moment where you want to introduce additional turmoil into government?”
In an interview, Al Browne, constituency association president for Calgary-Hays who has been involved in co-ordinating the effort to press for an early leadership review, said the motion as written calls for the party to hold a review by March 1. He said once the constituency association boards pass enough of the motions, the party has 60 days to announce the timing of such a review.
He said there are concerns among some associations, particularly in Edmonton where most ridings do not have incumbents and will need to recruit new candidates.
“It’s not a vote to remove the leader,” Mr. Browne said, “it’s asking for an earlier leadership review to give CAs time to do what they have to do, and then to know that the grassroots have voted to support Jason and move forward. That removes all of the speculation.”
Kevin Wilson, the president of the Airdrie-Cochrane constituency association, said the debate right now is largely about the timing of the leadership and he played down the significance of the motions. He said his board supports the Premier.
However, Samantha Steinke, president of the Central Peace-Notley UCP constituency association, said Mr. Kenney has failed the Conservative movement. She is against the vaccine passport system, and Central Peace-Notley MLA Todd Loewen was ejected from the UCP caucus in May, another period of high COVID-19 case counts, after he publicly called for Mr. Kenney’s resignation.
“It’s time to let the members decide who they want to lead them through the rest of this,” Ms. Steinke said, adding she hopes that Mr. Kenney resigns or is forced out before next year.
Mr. Kenney told reporters the UCP board will sort out when exactly a leadership review will be held.
“I’m happy to be held accountable to the members of my party,” he said. “But at the end of the day, we can’t allow the government during a period of crisis like this to be distracted or destabilized by political opposition to policies that are absolutely necessary to protect the health care system and to save lives.”
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