With Alberta’s COVID-19 infection rates surging toward Red State proportions, Premier Jason Kenney opted yesterday to double down on the strategy that’s already failing.
Using an unusual Friday COVID-19 briefing as his stage, Premier Kenney bragged about how well Alberta used to be doing, then urged Albertans to do their bit to slow the current frightening spike in infections by not having big social gatherings in their homes.
And if they won’t co-operate, he sternly warned, why, he might, just might, someday, have to do something about it! But not just yet.
In the meantime, Mr. Kenney said, the government won’t be doing anything much at all. There will be no mandatory restrictions, he vowed.
“We’ve seen other jurisdictions implement sweeping lockdowns, indiscriminately violating people’s rights and destroying livelihoods,” he told the news conference, placing the government’s do-little direction in a convenient libertarian frame. “Nobody wants that to happen here in Alberta.”
Actually, that’s not true. Lots of groups, including plenty of medical professionals, are pleading with the premier to act decisively and implement mandatory rules before we overwhelm the health care system with thousands of new COVID-19 cases.
But while it may be true that household gatherings are a leading source of infections, the premier went on, “we’re not going to be sending out police to monitor this.”
“This is appealing to people to exercise personal and collective responsibility, so that we can avoid having to use more stringent measures,” he explained. In other words, just what we’ve been doing, with decreasing success.
Mr. Kenney and Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw also pushed the line that mandatory restrictions to control COVID-19 have other negative health effects.
“We know that some of the measures that other jurisdictions have taken of course slowed the spread of COVID-19 but can have other health impacts,” Dr. Hinshaw said. “The advice that I have provided has always been to consider both the impacts of COVID and the impacts of restrictions.”
There’s enough truth to this to encourage a government determined to do as little as possible, but it strains credulity when the premier suggests rising deaths in the ongoing opioid crisis are tied to measures taken to control the pandemic.
So the government’s new policy, which for all intents and purposes is the same as its old policy, is to ask Albertans to please obey the rules and don’t invite more than 15 people over at one time. If they really want to be with 200 people, they can go to a bar — which will still be open. And if they insist on breaking the rules, well, they’re on notice, the government might do something about it someday.
Naturally, this will please core parts of the United Conservative Party base – red-meat libertarians heavily influenced by conspiracy theories from south of the 49th Parallel and the powerful restaurant and bar lobby represented by the premier’s friends at Restaurants Canada, for example.
It seems unlikely do much to get COVID-19 under control, though.
The reality is this is a government not all that concerned about ensuring Alberta is “the freest province in the country,” as the premier put it, when it comes to the right of citizens to protest its policies. This suggests this approach may have as much to do with the UCP’s desire to get on with its legislative agenda while there’s still time left in the electoral cycle.
That project was badly set back by last spring’s lockdown, and another lockdown might well derail it until after the next election, scheduled for March 2023.
From the government’s perspective, it also doesn’t hurt that the pandemic impacts the ability of opponents to organize large demonstrations against its policies.
So at the same moment Mr. Kenney was explaining why he intends to do little to stop the resurgent virus, Finance Minister Travis Toews was announcing the government’s plan to force the civil service to take a 4-per-cent pay cut this year, followed by a three-year pay freeze. With inflation, that’s the equivalent of about a 12-per-cent pay cut over the life of the contract.
The government also wants bigger cuts, styled as “market adjustments,” for some job categories.
Direct employees of the provincial government represented by the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees have already had their wages frozen for two of the previous three years – an arbitrator awarded a 1-per-cent increase for 2019.
Mr. Toews justified this yesterday by pointing to the pay cuts taken by some private sector workers when the oil boom went bust. He didn’t mention the government’s $4.7-billion tax giveaway to corporations.
While at his news conference, Mr. Kenney asked Albertans who want stricter measures to control the pandemic to have more sympathy for business people who are “barely hanging on,” although there wasn’t much sympathy from his government for the 24,000 education workers laid off last spring or the 11,000 front-line health care workers now facing the axe.
Pandemic tips for managing media
The UCP continues to exploit the pandemic call-in format for news conferences to exclude tough questions from reporters considered unfriendly by party issues managers.
So while Premier Kenney always has lots of time for softball questions from Postmedia’s Rick Bell — today’s newser was no exception — the gatekeepers refused again today to take questions from CBC investigative reporters Charles Rusnell and Jennie Russell.
Coincidentally or not, Mr. Kenney also hurriedly exited, stage right, just before the CBC’s Janet French came on the line with a question for him.