With pandemic travel scandal, Kenney faces conservative kryptonite: elitism
United Conservative Party, which rode populist wave to power, fumbles a scandal and suffers the consequences
How long do Albertans remember a scandal? It sort of depends. How long do Albertans remember missing out on their mom's funeral?
In the midst of a pandemic that has forced governments around the world to initiate sweeping invasions into the personal and professional lives of their citizens, it was revealed last week that United Conservative Party MLAs and cabinet ministers eschewed public health advisories against non-essential travel and hit the beaches.
Those revelations did not come easy.
Even after CBC News revealed that now former Municipal Affairs Minister Tracy Allard was in Hawaii despite denials from her office, Premier Jason Kenney called a rare news conference on New Year's Day and dithered.
There was equivocation and parsing of what it means to have an advisory and what is necessary travel anyway? Kenney said he didn't make it clear to his colleagues that they shouldn't travel, even though he and his colleagues had been busy making it clear to all the other Albertans.
There were no firings. No demotions.
When asked who else had travelled, he simply ignored the question but did acknowledge his own chief of staff had just come back from the U.K.
He said he wasn't aware his chief of staff or his cabinet minister was travelling.
Then more news of more travels by MLAs and senior staffers and a cabinet minister drip, drip, dripped through the weekend. Each bit of news fuelled rage in citizens obeying government orders as the pandemic continued to wreak havoc.
The result has been vociferous bipartisan howling that is uncharacteristic for Alberta. The current scandal goes to the very heart of the Alberta egalitarian myth and is so deeply personal on so many levels that it will be hard to scrub the record clean.
Even so, the government had an opportunity to rip off the Band-Aid and get in front of it but didn't take it.
Calgary-based pollster Janet Brown calls the government's response to the burgeoning scandal "baffling."
"It is just kind of Communications 101, that when you find yourself in a corner, you respond quickly and that when you're faced with that story you try to limit the duration of that bad story," she said in reference to Kenney's holiday press conference and the weekend that followed.
When Kenney stood up at that podium, almost an hour late, it was widely anticipated there would be consequences for Allard, perhaps for some of the travelling press secretaries and others who may have fled the coop.
Instead he said it was his fault for not making public health advisories clear to his MLAs and ministers and claimed that he did not know that those abroad were, in fact, abroad.
He said it was important to support airlines and his government has been promoting safe travel, despite the health recommendations saying otherwise. He said no laws were broken. He said he ordered anyone travelling to return home.
It took until Monday for Allard to say she was going to resign from cabinet and for Kenney's chief of staff to step down as well. Kenney demoted others who travelled.
The premier seemed to hope that if he just ignored it all, it would go away, perhaps be swept off by the next controversy in a government not shy about courting them.
Duane Bratt, a political scientist at Mount Royal University and avid watcher of Alberta politics, said the news conference "took a bad situation and made it worse."
He said there are three theories as to why the news conference went the way it did: Kenney is fiercely loyal to those who are loyal to him and he didn't want to hurt them; there were too many people to punish and he didn't want to open the floodgates; and, although Bratt says there's no evidence of this, that travel was actually endorsed by the caucus.
"Maybe it's because the communication people are still on holidays in Hawaii," he said. "But it was bad."
This was one time the government could not afford to make things worse.
There is a sort of barrier between many of the decisions and missteps that a government takes and the lives of ordinary citizens. Some things are too complex. Some things are too distant from the day to day.
"Politicians can make billion-dollar mistakes and recover," said Brown. "But when the average voter can draw a parallel between themselves and the politician, and that seems like an unfair parallel, that's something that really sticks with people."
So there's a cabinet minister flouting health advisories and jetting off to Hawaii when millions of Albertans have been told by their government to stay home. There are thousands who are out of work and would kill for a paycheque, let alone a mai tai on Waikiki Beach.
Businesses have been shuttered, milestones observed at a distance and grief suffered alone.
"I don't know who advised Allard on this, but the reason that she went to Hawaii is they always go to Hawaii, for 17 years," said Bratt.
"People have lost their business. People have lost their jobs. And you've got people going to their vacation homes, or you've got people travelling on an expensive vacation."
In addition to Allard, it has now come to light that United Conservative Party MLAs Tanya Fir, Jeremy Nixon, Pat Rehn, Jason Stephan and Tany Yao were all out of the country. There's the aforementioned chief of staff Jamie Huckabay, and also Energy Minister Sonya Savage, who travelled to B.C., and issues manager Matt Wolf, who visited family in Saskatchewan.
Social media was filled with angry reactions from Albertans. Conservative columnists and UCP supporters penned angry missives about the entitlement on display and the attempts to cover up the truth.
A government that shunned the most strict measures to contain the virus, in favour of personal responsibility, was caught ignoring health advisories it was pressing everyone else to follow.
It struck right into the heart of the populist rhetoric that first united the right and then elected the UCP.
On Monday, talk show host Ryan Jespersen, himself no fan of the Alberta government, did not hold back.
"This is pure hypocrisy. This is absolute arrogance. This is a series of outrageous examples of 'do as I say, not as I do.' This is mid-pandemic political entitlement. This is elitism. It is the out-of-touch leader of an out-of-touch government that has made a mockery of its promise to us," he said.
"The promise that we are in this together."
That sort of statement is the thing that brings conservative governments in Alberta to their knees.
What's to come?
When most Albertans think of scandals over the past couple of decades, there is one common theme among them: elitism. There's Ralph Klein tossing money at homeless people and berating them. There's Alison Redford and her travels and her infamous "sky palace."
A sort of populist zeal has fuelled politics in this province for a long time, from the nascent Co-operative Commonwealth Federation and the social gospel prairie preachers, to the United Farmers, Social Credit and the UCP.
"Self-righteousness is the kryptonite of the left," said Brown. "Elitism and entitlement is the kryptonite of the right."
Kenney knows this. He rails against the Laurentian elites of the East and the coffee-loving (and pipeline hating) elites of the West. He rails against the elites in universities and in investment banks and in not-for-profits and European capitals and parts of Edmonton and Calgary.
And now he has to face mounting anger that the elitism most prevalent in the province could be coming from inside his own house.
Both Brown and Bratt think that will leave a lasting impression on voters. Both say this scandal is orders of magnitudes more serious than others in recent memory that have toppled governments in Alberta.
"When it comes to conservative parties in Alberta, it's not often elections that bring them down, or their leaders, it's inside the party," said Brown.
Bratt wonders what it means for Kenney if those who fear him lose that fear.
He is currently threatened in a way he hasn't been before.
What happens when the donors start to view him as a liability rather than a champion? What happens if those involved in the UCP leadership scandal being investigated by the RCMP suddenly get the nerve to speak?
What of the Wildrose faction of the united party that signed on for a grassroots party and demanded recall legislation that is now missing in action and presumed unwell?
Research from Jared Wesley at the University of Alberta has shown a draining of support from the UCP to nascent challengers on the right, indicating a weakening right flank. Polling has shown Albertans are increasingly agitated by the government's handling of the pandemic — long before the new travel scandal.
Kenney's numbers indicate he is not popular in the province he governs.
And then there's the breakdown of trust highlighted and the sense of one rule for the many and special rules for the few. What does that do to the willingness of Albertans to go full out on their own personal responsibility?
"Are people just going to go, 'Yeah, I'm going to have a party at my house. Why not? I couldn't go to Hawaii,'" said Bratt.
"That's my fear, is that we're gonna see a spike, not because of the holidays, but after the holidays, because of the bad image from what government officials did."