Good morning. It’s James Keller in Calgary.
When a photo surfaced last week that showed Alberta Premier Jason Kenney dining and drinking with several cabinet ministers and others on the patio of a government office dubbed the “Sky Palace,” Mr. Kenney was quick to brush aside the controversy. The photo appeared to show some of the attendees sitting right next to each other in apparent violation of physical-distancing rules for such events; people from different households are supposed to stay two metres apart.
But Mr. Kenney repeatedly insisted there was nothing wrong with the dinner, and he and his staff mocked people who suggested the dinner had violated public-health orders. Mr. Kenney said people complaining about the dinner simply wanted to lock down the province forever. His executive director of issues management complained of “hall monitors” on Twitter and told critics to accept the fact that the pandemic is ending. And Mr. Kenney’s communications director scoffed at the notion that holding a small outdoor gathering was breaking news.
But then members of Mr. Kenney’s caucus started speaking out.
The first was Angela Pitt, an MLA who had previously criticized public-health orders, who wrote on Facebook that it was clear to her that public-health rules were broken. Another, Dave Hanson, posted that message with his own endorsement. Over the weekend, two members of cabinet – Culture Minister Leela Aheer and Social Services Minister Rajan Sawhney – weighed in with their own criticism. And MLA Richard Gotfried resigned his position as the party’s Calgary caucus chair last week and later complained on Facebook about “hypocrisy that makes a mockery of the tough decisions we have to make,” without referring directly to the patio dinner.
In the face of that pressure, Mr. Kenney reversed course and apologized on Monday. He said his office had taken another look at what happened and it was now clear that some people did not stay physically distanced for the entire evening. He said he took responsibility and regretted what happened.
It was the second time Mr. Kenney had apologized for public-health violations. In early January, the Premier accepted the resignation of a cabinet minister and his chief of staff while he demoted several MLAs after they travelled outside of Canada over the Christmas break. Mr. Kenney initially said he would not discipline anyone because, although discouraged, international travel was legally permitted.
When it comes to the recent dinner, it didn’t help that the event took place on the rooftop patio of a government office in Edmonton known as the Sky Palace, which came to symbolize government entitlement after former Progressive Conservative premier Alison Redford planned a series of renovations before her resignation.
With the apology out of the way, the Premier is no doubt looking to move past the Sky Palace dinner. But the events of the past week underscore a larger issue for Mr. Kenney: already low in the polls, he has faced several instances of dissent and criticism from within his own caucus, which have fuelled questions about the future of his leadership.
Two MLAs, Todd Loewen and Drew Barnes, were kicked out of caucus last month after Mr. Loewen publicly called for the Premier’s resignation and after numerous occasions in which Mr. Barnes attacked public-health orders. Before that, more than a dozen members of caucus signed a letter opposing COVID-19 restrictions, and in February, Ms. Pitt and Mr. Barnes joined an anti-lockdown group (which they later quit).
Mr. Kenney has insisted numerous times that he has no problem with members of caucus speaking their minds when they disagree with the government, which he has described as healthy debate.
However, the fate of Mr. Loewen and Mr. Barnes showed that there are limits to his tolerance. And the willingness of two members of Mr. Kenney’s own cabinet to publicly call out the Premier represents a level of dissent that was unimaginable when the United Conservative Party took power more than two years ago.
This is the weekly Western Canada newsletter written by B.C. Editor Wendy Cox and Alberta Bureau Chief James Keller. If you’re reading this on the web, or it was forwarded to you from someone else, you can sign up for it and all Globe newsletters here.