If you were playing election campaign bingo this week, cover the squares for Jean Chrétien campaigning for the Liberals and Brian Mulroney campaigning for the Tories. If you had Alberta Premier Jason Kenney riding to Justin Trudeau’s rescue just before the end, you deserve the jackpot.
Mr. Kenney obviously didn’t set out to help the electioneering Liberal Leader when he admitted he had mishandled the pandemic and declared a state of emergency in his province. And it sure seems like he was trying to put it off as long as he could, to the point where Alberta will now have both the vaccine passports that many in the Premier’s base didn’t want and the health care crisis the passports are supposed to prevent.
Yet help Mr. Trudeau he did, by underlining the thing the Liberal Leader has been trying to work up into a wedge issue since the first day of the campaign. Then Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, seemingly unable to help himself, helped Mr. Trudeau, too.
Behind all this is tragedy. Alberta’s intensive-care units are stretched nearly full. The province, home to less than one in eight Canadians, has experienced more than one in three new COVID-19 cases and deaths.
When asked about the emergency, Mr. O’Toole might have spoken about the human toll. He might have acknowledged that Mr. Kenney made mistakes. After all, Mr. Kenney did. But over 48 hours, Mr. O’Toole never mentioned Mr. Kenney’s name, and mentioned Alberta only briefly – before switching to talking about Ontario.
The Leader who has campaigned as the “man with a plan” was unwilling to speak plainly about a crisis. That played into Mr. Trudeau’s hands in the last days of a neck-and-neck campaign.
The Liberal Leader drew a line between Mr. Kenney’s COVID-19 policies and Mr. O’Toole’s less-categorical support for vaccine mandates to suggest the Conservative Leader won’t do enough to get the country through the pandemic without lockdowns. But that’s not the only thing.
Mr. Trudeau has for weeks argued that the reason Mr. O’Toole won’t back vaccine requirements is that a chunk of his Conservative base are anti-vaxxers or vehemently anti-mandate. There was no doubt that Mr. Kenney faced those pressures with his political base. And now Mr. O’Toole is so unwilling to even comment on a fellow conservative’s pandemic crisis that he was treating his former federal cabinet colleague, Mr. Kenney, as He Who Must Not Be Named.
Instead, he circled back to his argument that Mr. Trudeau should never have called an election in a pandemic. That’s Mr. O’Toole’s get-out-the-vote closer, designed to rile up voters who don’t like Mr. Trudeau to go to the polls. That’s fair game.
But the election campaign didn’t cause the fourth wave, there isn’t evidence that campaigning has fuelled cases, and when the election is over next week, the pandemic is still going to be an issue.
Of course, Mr. O’Toole isn’t responsible for Mr. Kenney’s mistakes over the pandemic. But when the Alberta Premier ate crow and announced vaccine requirements – sold as “restrictions exemptions” – the Conservative Leader might have mustered some comment on how the pandemic should be handled beyond saying he would have closed borders to travellers from some countries earlier in 2020.
At this point, the politicking is as much about posture as actual policy. Mr. Trudeau supports vaccination requirements for air and rail travel and has a not-very-clear policy about requiring them for federal public servants. Mr. O’Toole said unvaccinated people could be subject to tests. But it is provincial governments that have the real power to set requirements that would have a broader impact, for restaurants and bars or health workers or teachers.
Still, Mr. O’Toole’s refusal to talk about it, or Mr. Kenney, will send the message to some that he is trying to avoid strong choices on vaccination requirements. And it isn’t just those opposed, or vaccine-mandate protestors, who are riled up. Polls indicate vaccine mandates are popular. It’s not hard to find people who angrily express the view that the unvaccinated are clogging up hospitals and risking new lockdowns.
That’s the ground Mr. Trudeau has been trying to pull Mr. O’Toole onto since the beginning of this campaign. In the last days of a tight race, Mr. Kenney dragged him there. And then Mr. O’Toole’s pointed refusal to talk about it made sure more people would notice.
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