There was a familiar, frenetic vibe to Jason Kenney’s news conference in Red Deer yesterday, called to announce that happy days are here again because Alberta is dropping most of its remaining public health measures related to COVID-19.
But the Alberta premier’s arm-waving enthusiasm and the car salesman’s frozen grin pasted on his face were eerily reminiscent of that day in June 2021 when he announced Alberta was open for good and we were about to experience “the best summer ever.”
We all know how that turned out.
But now, said Mr. Kenney, “it’s Alberta’s time! Now, Alberta is on a roll! Alberta is on the rise! And we won’t stop because this is the best place in the world to live, work and raise a family!
“So thank you to everyone for your patience. Thank you for your forbearance. Thank you for your care for others. Thank you for the health care workers. Thank you for everyone who has made some kind of sacrifice over the past two years.”
All in all, it was a pretty good improv performance of the worst salesman on the car lot who knows the boss will fire if he can’t sell a beater by sundown.
And, come to think of it, that’s not a bad description of Mr. Kenney’s current predicament.
Yesterday wasn’t his first trip to Red Deer in the past few days, either, and it probably won’t be his last.
After all, the Central Alberta city of 100,000 or so souls is scheduled to be the scene of his appointment with destiny on April 9 when United Conservative Party members review his leadership.
So he’s not just “good news” like the announcement face masks are kaput in Alberta that he and Health Minister Jason Copping brought to a local restaurant yesterday morning, he’s been bestowing expensive favours right and left on the good folk of the city and region, home to some of the most conservative communities in Alberta just a short drive from the convention hotel where he’ll be fighting for his political life.
There will be $3.4 million in provincial funds for a new $22-million Central Alberta Child Advocacy Centre in Red Deer.
There will be $7.5 million to expand the Red Deer Regional Airport.
And the pièce de résistance – so far – there will be a $1.8-billion expansion of the Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre, which Mr. Kenney touted as “the largest investment in the history of central Alberta.” (One caveat: Only $100 million was approved for the project in the 2022 Budget.)
As veteran Alberta political columnist Don Braid observed last night: “Only the clinically naïve would doubt that this regional generosity is all about the April 9 leadership vote.”
After all, plenty of the party members around Red Deer at whom Mr. Kenney was aiming his message have grown deeply disillusioned with him for not ending all COVID-19 mitigation measures months ago.
Of course, conservative rural UCP members don’t just want carrots, they want sticks too – for the other guys.
So the premier delivered on that as well, announcing that amendments to the Municipal Government Act will be rammed through the Legislature “to restrict the ability of municipalities to pass bylaws that contradict public health policies and rules enacted by the province.”
If Edmonton City Council members want to maintain their own mask mandate for a little longer, they’ll be slapped down.
This is clearly political theatre aimed at the UCP base, since councillors are scheduled to meet next week to discuss the mandate, and were expected to lift it anyway.
Nevertheless, the premier argued in yet another news release, “as we safely move beyond COVID restrictions, we need clarity, consistency and unity. It would be confusing and divisive to have multiple different public health policies, particularly when there is no compelling public health rationale. It is time for us to move forward together.”
The old divider even made an uncharacteristic stab at trying to sound conciliatory: “It’s been a divisive time,” he ended his scripted remarks at the morning news conference. “Let’s leave that division in the rear view mirror. Let’s look through the windshield. Let’s be hopeful and optimistic about this great province that is once again on the rise. God bless.”
Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi called the plan “overreach of power and abuse of authority” and said it has “far-reaching implications.”
In a news release, Alberta Municipalities President Cathy Heron, mayor of St. Albert, complained the premier’s “top-down approach” was “heavy-handed and unnecessary.”
Back in July 2020 when it was rural municipalities complaining about mask mandates, the same premier was singing a different tune: “We think a one-size-fits-all approach for a huge vast, diverse, province like this doesn’t make sense.”
But that was then, and this is now.
Responding to a reporter’s question at the morning news conference, Mr. Kenney said he’d instructed Alberta Health Services to give him options for ending the COVID-19 vaccine mandate for health care workers, for which he claimed there is no longer a “compelling rationale.”
According to a Global News story by investigative journalists Charles Rusnell and Jennie Russell published before the news conference, however, a leaked document revealed the decision has already been made to put the policy into effect on March 15.
Many public health experts were horrified, but Mr. Kenney is clearly his own public health expert now, making decisions based on his own interpretations of science.
“We certainly shouldn’t allow political science to be a substitute for public health science,” the premier huffed at one point.
But since it’s pretty clear public health experts aren’t making public health decisions around here anymore, readers are entitled to wonder who’s actually basing health policy on political considerations nowadays.