The reviews are in for Doug Ford’s handling of the pandemic and he has, so far, exceeded expectations. The Ontario Premier has been steady and measured even as he has described dark realities. He has moved quickly to pandemic-era policies that go against his conservative bent. Former premier Kathleen Wynne, once a fierce political rival, gently characterized Mr. Ford’s early misstep of telling families to enjoy their March break trips as a well-intended attempt at trying to calm anxious Ontarians.
In the West, the reaction to Alberta’s conservative Premier is decidedly more mixed.
Expectations were probably higher for Jason Kenney. He is the de facto leader of the group of conservative premiers who regularly provide a regional counter to a Liberal caucus often too Central-Canada focused. And Alberta is outsized, relative to its population, in both its preparedness for a pandemic and the hit its large oil-heavy economy will take as a result.
Through the health crisis, Mr. Kenney has been a steady supporter of Alberta’s public-health officials, who have been measured and reasonable in enforcing the province’s shutdown measures. He was early to praise truckers and quick to shame hoarders and scammers, saying, “There must be a special place in hell for people like that.” He has been frank and forward-looking regarding what he predicts will be 18 months of ultralow oil prices and the accompanying economic havoc the province faces.
Yet, the Premier’s aggressive, hyperpolitical style has not been tamed by the pandemic. And at a point when doctors have never been so valued by society, there are near-daily news stories of his United Conservative Party government’s inability to find resolution in a series of financial battles with the province’s physicians.
How is it possible for Mr. Kenney to be at once so right and so wrong?
The Premier is clearly most at home when it comes to long-term economic planning and strategy. Mr. Kenney has given many in his province a glimmer of hope by continuing forward with what was a secret but long-planned public investment in the Keystone XL pipeline. If the much-delayed project actually gets built – a caveat for any planned heavy oil pipeline – it will help Alberta producers get a much better price for their product – when oil prices rebound – and the province will be a part-owner in a valuable asset. Strategically, it also helps solidify Canada’s place in the North American energy market.
The Premier also performed well in a televised address on April 7 during which he said it was possible to focus on both battling the pandemic and restarting the economy. He laid out a coherent, five-point economic Recovery Strategy, far ahead in detail than what any other province has laid out.
Perhaps as a result of his long experience as a federal cabinet minister, Mr. Kenney is able to seize on blind spots for the governing Liberals earlier than most. A month ago, he visited the Edmonton airport in a well-timed photo op to raise alarm about a lack of federal screening protocols for international travellers. According to a senior Alberta government source, other premiers thanked him for bringing early attention to the issue.
But Mr. Kenney’s performance has fallen flat in other areas. For instance, a drawn-out presentation on the modelling for the peak of Alberta COVID-19 cases was painful. It should have been led by Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw. In contrast, Mr. Ford let his health officials lay out the details of his province’s modelling.
The decision by Alberta to send much-needed medical supplies to British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec should have been an easy win for all concerned. But instead, there were hiccups. The government should have made sure non-hospital workers in Alberta – other doctors, pharmacists and seniors’ home workers, for instance, who were uncertain they would receive enough personal protective equipment – knew their needs would be fully supplied, prior to the weekend announcement.
The Premier could have shut down a reporter’s question that day about whether the medical shipments should be tied to the rest of Canada’s future support for Alberta’s energy sector and pipeline construction. He responded the shipments are about saving lives, but he hoped the health crisis serves as reminder of the importance of national unity – and that generating wealth through the “responsible development of resources” gives Canada “the money that pays for world-class health care, to get us through times like this.” Mr. Kenney should have simply responded that a gift is a gift.
And Mr. Kenney is positioning himself as a leading voice in a debate about whether the federal government acted fast enough to close Canada’s borders to countries with high rates of COVID-19 infection, and should have earlier questioned some World Health Organization pronouncements. But his criticism of Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam to the CBC, that in the early days of the coronavirus she had been “repeating talking points out of the [People’s Republic of China]" came across as personal.
But the biggest mark against his government in the COVID-19 crisis is its handling of a pay dispute with Alberta physicians. Before the pandemic, when the province was already in a tough financial spot, the government was focused on reducing pay for doctors – who Mr. Kenney has repeatedly argued are the highest-compensated in the country.
That single-mindedness by Mr. Kenney and Health Minister Tyler Shandro on the issue has continued, even now. The Alberta Medical Association has filed a lawsuit against the province over how the government pushed through billing changes, beginning April 1. Some doctors, especially those in rural areas, say they will leave their work in the months ahead as it no longer makes financial sense for them to run their practices.
There is no sign the battle is affecting the delivery of health care services. But Alberta’s NDP Opposition, led by former premier Rachel Notley, has been able to continue to capitalize on the back-and-forth and has gone as far as calling for Mr. Shandro’s removal. On Friday, doctors in a northern Alberta hamlet were the latest to announce they are resigning. The worried mayor of Lac La Biche county, Omer Moghrabi, told Lakeland Today, the area’s online newspaper, that he can see both sides of the dispute.
But Mr. Moghrabi summed it up best as he questioned the timing of the government’s push to go after doctors’ earnings, asking why with one of the best medical systems in the world, in the midst of a pandemic, Alberta is "the only place on the globe right now that is fighting with its medical people.”
We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.