Happy New Year, Alberta!
And welcome to the first United Conservative Party Government scandal of 2021: Municipal Affairs Minister Tracy Allard has been caught vacationing in Hawaii, mid-pandemic.
Even before the New Year’s fireworks started going off last night, the CBC had reported that Ms. Allard, MLA for Grande Prairie and the minister responsible for Alberta’s shambolic COVID-19 vaccine rollout, returned the day before yesterday from a family vacation somewhere in the Hawaiian Isles.
Needless to say, the optics for a government that’s been telling Albertans to sacrifice and not even visit their loved ones here in Alberta, let alone take off for a foreign vacation in the sun, are ugly. The federal government has advised all Canadians not to engage in non-essential travel abroad until further notice.
Alberta’s New Democratic Party Opposition immediately called for Ms. Allard’s resignation. “Serious mistakes have been made with our only long-term weapon against the COVID-19 virus and it turns out the minister responsible for the rollout of the program was vacationing in Hawaii,” Opposition Municipal Affairs Critic Joe Ceci in a news release.
“Minister Allard is in charge of emergency management,” Mr. Ceci said. “She has made an unforgivable error and must resign her position immediately.”
This puts Alberta Premier Jason Kenney in an interesting position. A man not inclined to take the NDP’s advice on anything has before him today the example of Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who yesterday fired his finance minister for the same offence. Alert readers will recall that Mr. Kenney and Mr. Ford used to boast that they were so much alike they could finish each other’s sentences.
Former Ontario finance minister Rod Phillips marked New Year’s Eve by “resigning” in disgrace hours after returning from his ill-considered sojourn in Saint Barthélemy, the semi-autonomous French collectivité d’outre-mer in the Caribbean.
The problem was the same as with Ms. Allard’s December vaycay in Hawaii: It was smack in the middle of the second wave of a deadly pandemic that has resulted in the governments both ministers served locking down normal activities and strongly discouraging travel.
Such vacations reek of privilege and entitlement and Mr. Ford at least obviously realized that Mr. Phillips had to go. It remains to be seen what Mr. Kenney will do.
Notwithstanding the use of the word resigned, Mr. Phillips was clearly sacked. After all, upon arrival at Toronto’s Pearson Airport yesterday he said he really would prefer to keep his job. Then he had a chat with Mr. Ford. Then he resigned. It doesn’t require psychic powers to figure out what happened.
Mr. Ford is reported to have known about where his finance minister was holidaying for weeks and didn’t order him back. So Mr. Phillips may have felt he had the premier’s blessing.
It’s not yet known if Mr. Kenney knew about Ms. Allard’s Hawaiian vacation location, or those of other UCP senior staffers and possibly another MLA or two, if Wednesday’s buzz on social media is to be believed.
Mr. Kenney’s press secretary wasn’t returning media calls and emails yesterday, presumably while the UCP communications brain trust, those of them that aren’t in Hawaii themselves, figures out how to respond.
It also appeared that Ontario’s Mr. Phillips – or perhaps someone on his staff – had been posting tweets that pretended he was still in Ontario while he was soaking up the sun and vin rouge on Saint Barts. There was a fake Queen’s Park backdrop used in Zoom meeting to pretend he was in Toronto, and a pre-recorded Christmas video of the minister at home in his Ajax Riding, east of Toronto.
For her part, Ms. Allard has already had COVID-19 and recovered, and the behind-schedule vaccine rollout is in the hands of her deputy minister, former Canadian Forces Lieutenant-General Paul Wynnyk, so perhaps she thought she was good to go, her duties notwithstanding.
Alberta’s vaccination program stumbled before it was out of the starting gate with fewer than half of the promised December 2020 inoculations completed by yesterday. Alberta is last in Confederation for per capita vaccinations.
Mr. Ford at least seems to have realized that if Mr. Phillips’ head hadn’t rolled, his own might have been on the block in the next Ontario provincial election, which must be held before June 2, 2022. One imagines memories of the great COVID-19 pandemic will still be fresh in many voters’ memories when that date rolls around.
Out here in Wild Rose Country, however, the next Alberta general election isn’t scheduled until the spring of 2023, and Mr. Kenney is the kind of politician who will be smugly confident he can come up with a way to defeat the NDP by then, notwithstanding the Opposition party’s recent strong polls.
Just the same, a couple of UCP MLAs appeared to be making an effort to show they were at home while the coronavirus was hitting the fan.
Lethbridge-East MLA Nathan Neudorf, who had been the subject of Internet rumours he was in Hawaii, published not one but two posts on his Facebook page yesterday asserting his presence in his southern Alberta riding.
“While it may not be a tropical paradise, the above-zero temperatures we have been having here in Lethbridge has been a welcome treat,” he said in one published yesterday morning. “Last night, my wife and I walked around Henderson Lake enjoying the beautiful winter lights of the Nikka Yuko Japanese Gardens.”
In a video posted in the afternoon, he held up a copy of yesterday’s edition of the Lethbridge newspaper and said, “like the Herald says today, stay six feet away from social media.”
Agriculture Minister Devin Dreeshen posted a video of himself skating and clearing snow off the ice. The Facebook post appears to have included for a while a location tag to Saint Barts – perhaps the sort of joke that would appeal to a person most famous for showing up in a MAGA Cap at a Donald Trump post-election celebration in 2016. If so, it was in remarkably bad taste, given the circumstances.
Still, if the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour, the odds are good no one in Premier Jason Kenney’s circle will have to pay a very high price for what got Ontario’s Mr. Phillips sent to Coventry.
Readers will remember the case of Mr. Kenney’s former speechwriter, Paul Bunner, who was accused of racist, sexist and homophobic commentary in old articles that resurfaced last spring. Mr. Kenney defended him in print and kept him around for months before he conveniently retired at 65 last fall.
And as far as anyone knows, John Carpay, the premier’s long-time friend and ally who notoriously compared the rainbow Pride Flag to the red and black swastika banner of Nazi Germany, also remains a member of the UCP.