OPINION | Kenney's COVID-19 apology a calculated political move

When Premier Jason Kenney held his long-awaited news conference on Tuesday to announce new COVID-related restrictions, he did two unusual things. Well, unusual for him.

Alberta premier seems to be deliberately boxing himself into a corner

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney says the single biggest thing Albertans can do to stop the spread of COVID-19 is stop having private parties and social gatherings. (CBC)

This column is an opinion from Graham Thomson, an award-winning journalist who has covered Alberta politics for more than 30 years.

When Premier Jason Kenney held his long-awaited news conference on Tuesday to announce new COVID-related restrictions, he did two unusual things. Well, unusual for him.

He admitted to making a mistake and he issued an apology.

I don't want to overstate the moment but, well, I've never heard Kenney definitively do either of those things in his 23 years as a politician.

Here's his mea culpa from Tuesday: "We need to acknowledge as we go through COVID when we have made mistakes. This government made, I think, a grave mistake in the spring when we made, frankly, I think a stupidly arbitrary distinction between essential and non-essential retail businesses that had the unintended consequence of allowing Walmarts and Costcos to sell darn near everything because they have a grocery section, where they sell pharmaceuticals, while shutting down thousands and thousands of retail small and medium businesses."

He added the 10-week lockdown on small and medium businesses was "a stupid mistake that we made, for which I apologize."

Hearing a politician calling his own policy "stupid" and then declaring, "I apologize," is surprisingly refreshing. Hearing it come from Kenney is jaw droppingly shocking.

Kenney is not someone prone to admitting mistakes.

The phone call apology

In 2012, for example, when he was the federal Immigration Minister, he sent an email to his Alberta caucus colleagues, Conservative senators, and staff calling Alberta's then-deputy premier Thomas Lukaszuk, "a complete and utter asshole."

After the email was leaked (to me, actually), Kenney was grilled, and ridiculed, by the opposition Liberals and NDP who asked him repeatedly during question period if he would simply apologize.

Kenney refused, tried to duck the issue while defiantly insisting he had good relations with the Alberta government. But days later, the prime minister's office, realizing Kenney's truculent performance made him look petty and belligerent, ordered him to apologize. He did, but not publicly. He had a private telephone conversation with Lukaszuk.

In 2018, after slamming Prime Minister Trudeau as an "empty trust fund millionaire" with "the political depth of a finger bowl" who "can't read a briefing note longer than a cocktail napkin," Kenney again refused to apologize even though he had previously promised never to use personal attacks against his political opponents.

Eventually, days later when visiting Ottawa, he appeared on CBC's Power & Politics to say, "I regret having said that, because I've gone for a long time without making ad hominem remarks." When asked by the host, Vassy Kapelos, if he apologizes to Trudeau, Kenney said, "Sure."

And then came this week when Kenney candidly admitted making a mistake and, without equivocation, apologized.

Has Kenney turned over a new leaf? Has he learned a lesson from the late Ralph Klein who, as premier, was noted for admitting when he had goofed?

Well, no. This was a classic Kenney move.

Defiance dressed up as apology

His apology on Tuesday was calculated and strategic. It was aimed at a key segment of his support base, small and medium business owners, many of whom were not happy with his lockdown in the spring.

Admitting publicly that his policy was "stupid," and promising not to repeat the mistake, was a way of reassuring those business owners he is not considering doing it again. And it was also designed to aggressively bolster his argument for why he isn't following the lead of other provinces.

It's defiance dressed up as an apology.

He is not, for example, apologizing to doctors for fighting with them during a pandemic. He is not apologizing to 11,000 health-care support workers for outsourcing their jobs.

He is very carefully using the apology to appeal to his base while aggressively rejecting those who want more stringent restrictions. Interestingly enough, those who want more of a crackdown seem to be the majority of Albertans.

According to a recent public opinion poll by ThinkHQ Public Affairs, 81 per cent of 1,100 Albertans surveyed support a sweeping, mandatory mask rule for public spaces.

Oddly enough, Kenney seems to be deliberately boxing himself into a corner.

It follows a pattern where a few weeks ago he slammed other provinces for introducing "sweeping lockdowns" that are "violating people's rights and destroying livelihoods."

Finding a balance during the pandemic is obviously difficult. But no province has been as lenient as Alberta and no province has seen as many COVID cases as Alberta did last weekend.

If the new measures announced on Tuesday don't stop the troubling rise in COVID cases and hospitalizations, Kenney says he'll have to introduce tougher measures in three weeks.

However, based on his previous comments it's difficult to see how he'll pivot from attacking strict limitations as "violating people's rights and destroying livelihoods" to embracing them as necessary and defensible.

Let's hope the latest restrictions successfully flatten the curve but, as we've seen the past few months, too many Albertans have demonstrated they're not taking the pandemic seriously enough.

If the government is forced to invoke some sort of lockdown, perhaps it would help if three-weeks-from-now-Kenney admits to making a stupid mistake by not imposing a crackdown sooner and apologizes to those Albertans who are sick at home or in a hospital.


Graham Thomson is an award-winning journalist who has covered Alberta politics for more than 30 years, much of it as an outspoken columnist for the Edmonton Journal. Nowadays you can find his thoughts and analysis on provincial politics Fridays at cbc.ca/edmonton, on CBC Edmonton Television News, during Radio Active on CBC Radio One (93.9FM/740AM) and on Twitter at @gthomsonink.