There are no certainties in politics, especially in pandemic times. But Jason Kenney sounds absolute when he says right off the top of a year-end interview that Alberta will finally regain the economic activity lost since 2015, and we’ll soon be talking about labour shortages instead of the province’s high unemployment rate.
“We’re going to finally, and fully, recover from six tough years early in 2022,” he said.
“I can tell you, I’m working daily on landing several more large-scale investments across the Alberta economy. I’m super optimistic about next year.”
Some economists have cast doubt that Alberta’s once construction-heavy economy will ever be what it once was. Mr. Kenney himself says later in the interview with The Globe and Mail that the arc of the pandemic still matters. “Please God, if we can start to stabilize next year to some extent, if travel, tourism and hospitality can come back on top of everything else, it’s going to be an amazing year in the job market.”
But mostly Mr. Kenney, 53, is focused on his plans for a return to better times.
He and other cabinet ministers will soon travel to Ottawa to seek clarity on federal plans to cap the oil and gas industry’s greenhouse gas emissions starting in 2025, before they’re locked in. He said he hopes the COVID-19 Omicron variant will be “relatively mild,” and future waves of the virus will be “smaller and more manageable.” And an announcement is coming on a widespread distribution of rapid tests for Albertans, before Christmas.
Possibly – which in politician speak usually means yes – rules will be relaxed for indoor visits, now limited to two households for the vaccinated and not-at-all for those who are not. Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw expressed concern this week that COVID-19 hospitalization numbers, although way down from their fourth-wave peak, have plateaued. But Mr. Kenney said, “We need to have rules that are realistic. I don’t want to end up basically inviting widespread non-compliance, which undermines the whole utility of public health measures.”
Speaking about those dark weeks in the summer, when COVID cases were rising in a deadly, Delta-driven fourth wave, was a rare moment where Mr. Kenney expressed doubt.
“It’s clear that the analysis was flawed,” Mr. Kenney said, speaking about the criticism his government received for being too quick to open for summer (when he said restrictions “will be history”), and too slow to reimplement health measures as hundreds of Delta-driven cases began to crush the capacity of Alberta’s hospitals.
“I suppose you could quibble and say that we should have done so a week or two earlier.”
He also rejects the Opposition New Democrats’ postulation it was unclear who was in charge of pandemic policies in August when Mr. Kenney took his first lengthy vacation in years. “When you’re head of government, your job never ends. You might get a change of scenery. But the notion that not being at my desk means that I’m not making decisions or being informed is just completely incorrect.”
The NDP, relentless in its critiques even 18 months before an election, knows the Premier’s political future is a bigger question than Alberta’s economy next year.
Mr. Kenney is in relatively safe territory to say 2022 will exceed recent economic expectations for Alberta. The finances of the government have changed so drastically that Finance Minister Travis Toews says it’s not out of the question the budget will be balanced in the next fiscal year.
Mr. Kenney argued his government’s efforts to bring petrochemical developments to the province through incentives and corporate tax cuts are bearing results. He said job growth has come in areas such as tech, forestry, food processing, renewable energy and film and TV, and isn’t directly related to increases in demand for oil and natural gas. Energy companies are still paying down debt and increasing dividends before raising their capital budgets in 2022, he said.
But there is still a big economic and political hole to climb out of. NDP Leader Rachel Notley, the former premier, polls significantly higher than the current office holder. Critics for and against health restrictions have called on the Premier to resign for his government’s pandemic-era decisions. Internal United Conservative Party strife flared up every couple of months this year. Governing party MLAs and members have slammed the Premier’s management style.
A leadership review scheduled for April 9 in Red Deer is still a big test for Mr. Kenney. Members will have to show up in person, and pay a fee of $100 or less to attend and vote. So far, internal party opposition has failed to come together in a way that has truly challenged Mr. Kenney – getting through the past month’s UCP annual general meeting with no major flareups is seen as a win for his side.
But many party members still believe the leadership question has to be settled well before a 2023 election. And that means Mr. Kenney isn’t out of the woods.
A late-night debate on Bill 81, long-promised UCP legislation that makes changes to the province’s electoral laws, was a display this week of fissures in the governing party. Three outspoken UCP MLAs eventually voted against the bill, outlining their concern it allows someone with deep pockets to buy party memberships in bulk, even without the knowledge of the individuals who are signed up.
What could be viewed simply as internal party minutiae has to be contextualized: The RCMP is still investigating allegations that fake e-mail addresses for real people were used to cast UCP leadership ballots for Mr. Kenney in 2017. The party and Mr. Kenney say the allegations are untrue.
There is a legal debate about what exactly Bill 81 changes with regards to memberships. Mr. Kenney says Alberta elections law has never involved itself in membership rules, which he said should be left up to the parties. ”It’s not for the state to micromanage internal party matters,” he said in the year ender.
But there is certainty from Mr. Kenney on whether the rules for his party will change as a result of the law. “I can tell you how the UCP governs it: We don’t permit third-party or mass purchases of memberships. Period. Full stop.”
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