Jason Kenney sees opportunity in political chaos
Everything is in flux, and the Alberta premier couldn't be happier
This column is an opinion from Graham Thomson, an award-winning journalist who has covered Alberta politics for more than 30 years. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.
The country is in chaos and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney couldn't be happier.
"Freedom convoys" have impeded people's freedoms, the prime minister is invoking the federal Emergencies Act, and Canadians are divided over lifting pandemic restrictions.
For many people, these are problems; for Kenney, they are opportunities.
Kenney has been waiting for this moment ever since COVID-19 bullied him into submission almost two years ago, forcing him to work with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, negotiate with health-care workers, and invoke mandates to restrict people's freedoms.
Whenever Kenney tried to break free, he tripped over his own feet — with the biggest pratfall coming last year after he promised Albertans the "best summer ever" in July only to usher in a devastating fourth wave.
Now, while many people are still tiptoeing into a new normal, Kenney has laced up the running shoes and is in a sprint to a post-pandemic world.
Demonizing health restrictions
He isn't just lifting public health restrictions, he is demonizing the very rules he had in place just days ago. Restrictions such as mask mandates and a vaccine passport system that helped protect people, ease stress on our healthcare system and even save lives, Kenney now calls "harmful," "divisive" and "unconstitutional."
He is embracing the language of the anti-vaxxers, the anti-maskers and the freedom truckers.
He is in a hurry to get back to normal — not a new normal, but the same old pre-pandemic political normal where he uses overwrought rhetoric to attack his enemies, whether they be unions, the news media or, as always, Justin Trudeau.
On Monday, he suggested anyone still interested in demonstrations should camp outside the Alberta Federation of Labour office in Edmonton to protest against the AFL's support for a continued mask mandate. Almost as an afterthought, he added the word "peacefully."
Kenney is in such a hurry he laid out his path to a post-pandemic world last week with little to no consultations with anyone outside his inner circle of like-minded advisors.
He announced the end of mask mandates for students even as his government continued to send thousands of masks to schools. He threatened to change the Municipal Government Act to prevent Edmonton and Calgary from invoking their own pandemic restrictions — and on Monday claimed partial credit for browbeating the cities into submission.
"I'd like to believe that perhaps us tabling the possibility of changing the law to prohibit them from doing this played a role," he said.
The rush to lift restrictions has left the impression Kenney is simply caving in to the demands from truckers who blockaded the Coutts border crossing.
In that, Kenney was once again the agent of his own misfortune.
The Coutts' blockade was sparked by the "freedom convoy" to Ottawa that Kenney supported in its early days, not as an occupation of the national capital but as a group of fellow travellers out to make life difficult for Trudeau over the issue of a vaccine mandate on cross-border truckers.
Not only did Kenney cheer them on almost three weeks ago, he had been egging them on inadvertently for years.
Since becoming premier, Kenney has chronically painted Trudeau as being anti-oil, anti-Alberta and anti-democratic. Kenney made the Liberal government the villain during a simplistic referendum last fall in a cynical and doomed attempt to scrap the federal equalization program.
When journalist Evan Solomon asked Kenney on the weekend if he took any responsibility for giving credibility to the truckers' occupation of downtown Ottawa, Kenney ducked any blame and predictably pointed the finger at Trudeau for provoking the protest, even though the vaccine mandate on cross-border truckers was part of a bilateral agreement with the United States.
A champion of 'freedom'
While long accusing his opponents of divisive politics, Kenney has been issuing divisive social media posts of his own, often under the guise of championing "freedom", as in, "As my friend @PierrePoilievre says, freedom is on the march." That's a reference to one of the most divisive politicians in the country, who is now in the race to become leader of the federal Conservative Party.
The word "freedom" has itself become politicized.
The truckers have their "freedom convoy" but there are others who want the freedom to live in a country where their capital city isn't under occupation and where people follow pandemic mandates to keep us all free from a health system under stress.
Trudeau has arguably bungled the government's reaction to the truckers' occupation of downtown Ottawa, but he has refused to bend to the truckers' demands. Ironically, it is Kenney who has apparently caved in. He has denied this, of course, but the timing is suspicious, to say the least. Before truckers moved into Coutts, Kenney mused out loud several weeks ago about ending some restrictions by the end of March.
But if the path forward was laid down in a hurry, the political motivation behind it was carefully plotted for months.
Kenney has been looking for every opportunity to regain the support of his Conservative base in rural Alberta; the kind of base that has cheered on the truckers' blockades and has for the past 23 months bristled every time he invoked a pandemic restriction.
A significant chunk of his base is leaning toward the right-wing Wildrose Independence Party, according to public opinion polls. And most worrying for Kenney is the potential for disgruntled conservative-minded voters to end his political career. They are threatening to flood the United Conservatives Party's special meeting in Red Deer on April 9 to vote him out as party leader.
In preparation, Kenney has asked his chief of staff, Pam Livingston, to take a leave of absence from her job to lead a team to make sure he survives the leadership review.
"There will be an effort, obviously by many of the folks involved in these protests who have perhaps never belonged to a party before, to show up at that special general meeting and to use it as a platform for their anger about COVID measures over the past two years," said Kenney during Monday's news conference, in one of the most revealing, and honest, comments he has made as premier.
He is afraid for his job. That fear is being created by people who want COVID restrictions lifted as soon as possible. That fear seems to be driving Kenney's actions.
So, he is now trying to play events to his own advantage to save his own political hide, and if COVID is fading into the background, if not leaving the stage completely, his strategy could work.
The usual suspects
Kenney loves a fight and these days he is happily picking fights with his usual suspects.
Even news that the RCMP charged 13 people on Monday after discovering a cache of arms and ammunition at the Coutts blockade played to Kenney's advantage.
The RCMP's actions took the wind out of the truckers' sails, stopped members of Kenney's caucus from continuing to coddle the protesters, and allowed Kenney to loudly denounce the blockade and tell the truckers "go home," something many Albertans had been demanding for two weeks.
The blockade began to evaporate Tuesday morning.
On Monday, even as Kenney denounced any suggestion the federal Emergencies Act be applied to Alberta, he was no doubt happy Trudeau invoked the never-before-used legislation in the first place. It gives Kenney another reason to poke a stick at the federal government.
Events are unfolding, everything is in flux, and the country is in chaos.
And Jason Kenney couldn't be happier.
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