Jason Kenney was a changed premier this week.
And on Wednesday, there was no talk of Alberta having a generally light touch when it comes to restrictions. Instead he spoke of implementing conditions similar to other jurisdictions, and of the frustratingly higher COVID-19 rates here. Alberta, he said, has “a compliance problem.”
On Thursday, the long-standing combativeness on Ottawa’s slow vaccine procurement was toned down, with Mr. Kenney telling radio host Shaye Ganam the issue was “water under the bridge.” And in a sign his government was serious about enforcement of its rules, Alberta Health Services said the Court of Queen’s Bench granted a pre-emptive injunction against a planned protest this weekend by the owner of the Whistle Stop Café, a place that has become a symbol for those fighting health restrictions.
There was an unusually human moment, when Mr. Kenney despaired on a Facebook live chat that his family had become subject to violent threats over his government’s handling of the pandemic, including his 83-year-old mother. But there’s little in the way of emotive ties between him and the electorate, and that’s a problem for an unpopular leader in a health crisis where goodwill matters.
But perhaps most of all, came some certainty. The government this week finally moved to enact tough restrictions and enforcement to deal with a brutal third wave of variant-driven COVID-19.
Many people in the province believe the move to shut down all in-class learning, and restaurant patio dining, comes too late. The province’s case totals are worse, on a per-capita basis, than anywhere in North America.
But the new restrictions put some end to the waffling that have put front-line health care workers, business owners and parents of school-aged children on edge. And there was a sense this week that rather than focusing on Ottawa’s failures, Mr. Kenney was making necessary fixes in his own backyard.
Mr. Kenney also, maybe, has called the bluff of some of his United Conservative Party MLAs who have been allowed to publicly challenge his government’s COVID-19 public-health orders in recent weeks. It’s hard to imagine that statistics about how quickly Alberta hospitals could be overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases, and notice of other key surgeries pushed off to who-knows-when, doesn’t have a sobering effect. There was an unusual quiet from the group this week – as of Friday, there were no letters condemning the government’s new restrictions.
“I want to get past COVID. I want Albertans and their families to be safe. And I’m cheering for Premier Kenney and Alberta Health Services to get us through this,” Drew Barnes, MLA for Cypress-Medicine Hat, who has been outspoken in his criticism of health restrictions, said in an interview on Friday.
“At the same time, it’s incumbent for me to speak for my constituents and remind the Premier of all the other crises – the mental-health crisis, the opioid crisis. It’s still extreme down here.”
All of this is not to say there are no longer inconsistencies on health restrictions from the Premier. For instance, on Friday he still seemed open to suggestion for ad hoc tweaks to health restrictions. A columnist asked in a news conference why golfing was limited to household contacts when it’s outdoors, and can be physically distanced and masked, and Mr. Kenney replied: “You make a good case. I’ll bring that forward to the public-health team.”
And as the NDP pointed out, businesses took assurance in Mr. Kenney’s words in late April when he said the rules then – that families were allowed to eat together on restaurant patios, or in the case of a single person, with two close contacts – weren’t a COVID-19 transmission risk. Some owners spent thousands on patio-building. Then five days later, outdoor patios were completely shut down.
In all of this, it’s hard to imagine that anger at the government, or division within the UCP, could get worse than it is now – although it’s still possible.
Alberta doesn’t come by its reputation as being a hard place to govern without reason. Alberta was on wobbly footing when it comes to jobs and economic identity even before the pandemic.
Its political diversity is often underestimated. There are vocal critics on the right and left, anger from public-sector workers, cities and rural areas divided, rampant conservative infighting (again), and stronger vaccine hesitancy rates than other provinces. The strongest anti-lockdown protesters, who until very recently saved their ire for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, now have their sights set on Mr. Kenney. He has been squeezed by all sides.
Alberta voters fed up with pomposity of the Progressive Conservative dynasty voted for the NDP in 2015, only to toss Rachel Notley and her government in 2019. And a line of conservative leaders have been pushed out when conservative MLAs or party members lose faith. In the province’s 116-year history, the churn of premiers has sped up.
Mr. Kenney is the 18th premier. But the province has cycled through six premiers since Ralph Klein, the 12th, was forced into an earlier-than-planned exit by his own party members in 2006.
This week is a turning point for Alberta, where new restrictions could force grim pandemic trends to shift for the better. The question of whether Mr. Kenney’s premiership is at a turning point, or is salvageable, still rages.
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