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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney arrives at the 2021 budget in Edmonton on Feb. 25, 2021.

JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

A public letter against COVID-19 restrictions from a group of Alberta government MLAs looks like an open revolt, but isn’t. It also isn’t a behind-the-scenes orchestration on Jason Kenney’s part.

This airing of grievances from about one-quarter of the governing caucus is more akin to the Alberta Premier allowing for a pressure relief valve – a device meant to allow some venting in a system under great pressure, and otherwise at risk of a catastrophic rupture.

In this case, it applies to the machinery of party politics.

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Kenney faces criticism from doctors, his own caucus, over new COVID-19 health rules

Mr. Kenney now says the increase in variant cases, if left unchecked, will overwhelm the province’s health system by the middle of May. However, 15 United Conservative Party MLAs signed a letter this week saying that they don’t support the decision to reduce retail capacity limits and shut down libraries, most gym activities and indoor dining.

At least two others have posted similar sentiments on social media. Some of these MLAs have said that they’re worried about the effect of months-long shutdowns on mental health and small businesses. Constituents “want us to defend their livelihoods and freedoms,” the letter says.

These same rural and smaller-city MLAs have long been posting on social media that they favour regional health restrictions, and not the long-standing provincewide measures. In fact, given the now well-known unease in Mr. Kenney’s own ranks, it would have actually been a surprise if a protest against the new restrictions had not surface this week.

To be sure, this is a far-from-ideal situation for the Premier. He doesn’t want to be criticized in public. Mr. Kenney is facing a suite of bad circumstances, including an alarming rise in the COVID-19 variant case count and miserable polling numbers. Unhappiness in his own caucus over current health restrictions is also a major headache. He can’t govern if he doesn’t have the support of his own MLAs.

But by telling his MLAs early this week that he expected some of them to go public with their opposition to beefed-up health measures, he’s trying to avoid the political spectacle of even more discord. He has already managed – for now – to push off a leadership review vote to 2022. This is another means of controlling what he can, from a weakened political position.

Polling prepared for the UCP caucus, and obtained by The Globe and Mail, shows that about two-thirds of Albertans disapprove of Mr. Kenney’s performance as Premier, and that his approval numbers have dropped significantly this year. The poll, circulated this week, also found that a quarter of Alberta voters don’t like either of the two largest provincial parties. However, if an election were held today (a scheduled provincial election is two years away), Rachel Notley’s NDP would win a majority government.

Mr. Kenney added to the parameters of his free-speech edict to caucus on Thursday, telling MLAs (and then telling reporters) that he accepts diversity of opinion and the obligation to represent their constituents. But, he said, “the government caucus could not tolerate any member counselling people to engage in civil disobedience, or to break the public-health measures.”

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Even the most publicly critical of UCP MLAs, Drew Barnes and Angela Pitt, tweeted messages on Thursday that demonstrated they heard this message, loud and clear.

This week, Edmonton infectious-disease physician Leyla Asadi noted that the province has (far and away) the highest COVID-19 case counts per 100,000 people in the country. And David Shepherd, an NDP health critic, said that given the daunting circumstances, it’s “incredibly irresponsible and dangerous for elected officials to campaign against the public-health measures that can keep Albertans safe.”

Critics outside the party are not necessarily wrong in the assertion that Mr. Kenney is playing with fire by allowing such questioning of public-health orders.

But Alberta is a province far more divided than others in outlook about how the pandemic should be handled. The majority of Alberta voters support current restrictions – or want even tougher measures enacted to prevent a wave of new infections (unlike other parts of the country, schools and restaurant patios are still open).

At the same time, there is a cohort who think even the current restrictions are overbearing. This includes key supporters of the UCP, such as some small business owners, libertarians and rural leaders. It also includes social conservatives who are against Edmonton’s GraceLife Church being closed down and fenced off this week for refusing to follow COVID-19 health rules.

Mr. Kenney noted on Thursday that government MPs in Britain have openly clashed with their own government on restrictions, and Canadians need to learn from our “mother parliament” to better tolerate diversity of opinion.

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But the government, he said, has to make the final call. He also said regional measures won’t work, for now, with the virus spreading so quickly – and he doesn’t want to bring about a situation where travel within the province has to be restricted.

“We are in the midst of a very dangerous last COVID surge that could threaten lives and could potentially overwhelm our health care system,” the Premier reiterated on Thursday, saying that the vaccine rollout will eventually allow for an easing of restrictions.

“We just have to get through the next few weeks.”

But another act of dissent came this week when Peace River MLA Dan Williams – known as a close ally of the Premier’s – posted a Facebook video stating that as “an Albertan and a Christian,” he couldn’t stand by and say nothing as GraceLife Church was barricaded by Alberta Health Services and police.

“We need to take a stand,” Mr. Williams said, without specifying what that should be, other than spreading his message.

The Premier was likely anticipating these types of responses. With COVID-19 cases going higher, he could be forced to enact even more significant health restrictions in the days ahead. He will need to gird for another stream of opposition from within his own caucus, as well.

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