The biggest political question in Alberta is whether Jason Kenney’s promise this week to support a spring leadership review is enough to quiet unrest in his party. The short answer is no.
More on that later. Frankly, it feels superficial to focus on the palace intrigue given the life-and-death decisions playing out in the province’s hospitals. There were more than 1,600 new cases of COVID-19 reported Friday, and the system is buckling under the weight of a stream of seriously ill and mostly unvaccinated patients coming into hospital.
The message that should resonate with everyone is Verna Yiu, the president and chief executive officer of Alberta Health Services, describing this week how the province’s ICU staff can only keep pace “because, in part, some of our ICU patients have passed away.”
There are almost 250 people with COVID-19 in Alberta’s ICU units, and treating that number of patients is only possible because health care staff have been reassigned, and operating rooms have been commandeered.
Edmonton urogynecologist Cathy Flood said she doesn’t think the public knows how bad it is. This week, she was forced to cancel all reconstructive surgeries for those with the most difficult cases of pelvic organ prolapse – where people can’t pee, or develop ulcers. Some patients have been on a waiting list for more than a year. She had to turn away a woman who had driven six hours to Edmonton for surgery.
“I’ve been doing this since 1993. It’s never been like this before,” Dr. Flood said. “We’ve never been under this kind of strain.”
Alberta has postponed most surgeries and procedures where there’s no risk of death or morbidity within a three-day window. This is about three-quarters of all surgeries usually completed in the province, including some cancer surgeries and operations on children.
City councillor and Calgary mayoral candidate Jeff Davison went public this week with the fact that his six-year-old daughter, who only has a single kidney, had a surgery evaluation postponed to February. It was supposed to go ahead in November. His daughter has VACTERL association, a condition where a child is diagnosed with several birth defects. She also has back rods that are close to failing, and she could end up in emergency.
“It’s unnerving knowing that the hospital system you have relied on isn’t going to be able to support [her]. That’s terrifying,” Mr. Davison said. “This is not a pity story about Jeff and his family. This is a ‘wake up, folks.’ ”
Back to the politics of it all. There have been massive errors in judgment, and playing of politics on the Alberta Premier’s part. They include removing all health restrictions on July 1 and declaring them history, and seemingly leaving the province on autopilot when he went on vacation in August.
In the United Conservative Party caucus meeting this week, Mr. Kenney agreed to bump up a leadership review that had been scheduled for the fall of 2022. It will now go ahead in the spring.
For a group of government MLAs who no longer have any allegiance to Mr. Kenney, he also dangled the tantalizing prospect that he could depart on his own. In the caucus meeting, he suggested to MLAs that if he was a drag on the party, he would leave. He also said he would accept responsibility for errors in the province’s handling of COVID-19, and try to give any new leader a fresh start.
A non-binding vote of non-confidence against him that had been introduced in the meeting was withdrawn.
But what MLAs didn’t do this week could still be accomplished by the UCP grassroots. A leadership-review motion from constituency associations continues to circulate. The motion calls for a leadership review – which decides whether an actual leadership race should be held – before March 1. If it’s passed by enough associations, it could force an even earlier vote on a leadership review before it’s officially spring in the Northern Hemisphere.
And former cabinet minister Leela Aheer – who started speaking out against Mr. Kenney’s decisions in May – now says in absolute terms that the Premier needs to step down, immediately, to put the focus back on fighting COVID-19. An interim leader should be appointed, said the MLA for Chestermere-Strathmore. Mr. Kenney’s resignation would be a rallying point for the public.
“The man needed a break. It’s not about the holiday,” Ms. Aheer said in an interview, speaking of the Premier’s vacation in August. But during that time, while COVID-19 case counts spiked, there was no information being given to caucus about what was being done to address the situation, she said.
“You cannot wish COVID away.” If you don’t trust anyone in your ranks to run things while you’re gone, Ms. Aheer added, “that is a failure in leadership.”
It’s also true that some of the past internal debates of the UCP, about how serious COVID-19 is or whether to implement health restrictions, are just embarrassing now. In that vein, UCP executive Joel Mullan has argued in the Western Standard that the unpopular Mr. Kenney could have a negative effect on the outcome of the equalization referendum next month.
Yes, there are legitimate Western grievances. But to be focused on this while Canadian Armed Forces personnel are making deployment plans to help staff Alberta ICUs and run air transfers out of the province is a joke.
Publicly, Mr. Kenney says the COVID-19 emergency means that there’s no time for questions of politics. “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,” he said this week as he announced that Tyler Shandro was stepping down as the province’s health minister.
That much is true. And this mess is not wholly Mr. Kenney’s making. There is so much misinformation on social media about the dangers of vaccines and the authoritarianism of vaccine passports that it’s not surprising large groups have been opposed. This would be the case no matter who was premier.
But Ms. Aheer says that for too long there’s been a lack of clarity on what is guiding COVID-19 policies in Alberta. The public doesn’t trust the government right now.
“He needs to have the grace to step away from this and allow us to do our jobs,” she said of Mr. Kenney. “There’s been a huge human cost, in lives. Things need to change.”
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