Cabinet shuffle won't save Jason Kenney from COVID-19 crisis in Alberta, critics say

Swapping Alberta’s health minister out for a new face is unlikely to change the provincial government’s approach to managing the COVID-19 pandemic, observers say.

'The buck stops at the premier's office,' United Conservative Party official says

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney says he's focused on responding to the health crisis prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic's fourth wave. His critics argue his pandemic response is driven by politics. (Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)

Swapping Alberta's health minister out for a new face is unlikely to change the provincial government's approach to managing the COVID-19 pandemic, observers say.

Critics say Premier Jason Kenney's decision on Tuesday to move Calgary-Acadia MLA Tyler Shandro from health to labour and immigration minister, and Calgary-Varsity MLA Jason Copping into health, will do nothing to stem the surge of people with COVID-19, which is overwhelming the province's health-care system.

The premier has been driving the pandemic response, said Joel Mullan, vice-president of policy and governance for the United Conservative Party. He says his leader has failed spectacularly at the task and that Kenney should resign.

Although Kenney said Shandro resigned from the health portfolio, Mullan said the swap is the premier's attempt to deflect blame from himself.

"He was the captain of the ship. He was the one providing direction and supervision to Shandro over the pandemic, and ultimately at this point, anything that has gone wrong, the buck stops at the premier's office," he said.

Creating a false sense of hope that the pandemic was in the past and Kenney's about-face on introducing a vaccine passport system were his two most unforgivable moves, Mullan said.

Some UCP constituency associations are considering passing motions asking for an expedited party leadership review. A formal review isn't scheduled until the fall of 2022, which some believe isn't enough time to prepare for an election in the spring of 2023, should Kenney be replaced.

Mullan wouldn't say how many constituency associations have passed motions, but he said once 22 boards have done so, the party must hold the leadership review within a few months.

He said he fears that the NDP would win the next provincial election if Kenney remains at the helm.

WATCH | Alberta Premier Jason Kenney defends his leadership:

Kenney defends his leadership

1 year ago
Duration 2:23
Premier Jason Kenney says a leadership review by the UCP right now would be irresponsible given the current COVID-19 situation in Alberta.

At a news conference on Tuesday, Kenney deflected questions about whether his leadership is in jeopardy. He said he believes he has the support of his party and the caucus.

"We cannot allow politics, including internal politics, to distract us from the essential task of doing the right things," he said.

The premier said the people calling for his resignation are mostly those opposed to necessary public health restrictions or to vaccination requirements.

Kenney premiership in jeopardy, political scientist says

But at least two UCP MLAs publicly criticized Kenney's inaction on the fourth wave of the pandemic, saying he waited too long to introduce new measures and that delay will cost lives.

University of Calgary political science Prof. Lisa Young said she can't see a scenario where Kenney is still premier by the planned 2023 provincial election.

"I think the damage is too great," Young said. "I think that his personal brand is ruined. The current situation is really quite disastrous, and it's going to get worse before it gets better."

NDP Leader Rachel Notley, centre, speaking in the Federal Building in Edmonton on Tuesday, is flanked by health critic David Shepherd, left, and labour critic Christina Gray. Notley says two cabinet ministers trading portfolios will do nothing to change the UCP government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Janet French/CBC)

Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley said most of the members of the public calling for the premier's resignation are upset about cancelled surgeries and an overwhelmed health-care system — not public health restrictions.

The identity of the health minister is irrelevant now, she said, pointing to the 60 members of the UCP caucus who she said "sat on their hands" when it became clear hospitals were on track to become overwhelmed.

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi likened the cabinet swap to shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic.

A change in leadership, or an admission that the province's approach to health care has been flawed, are needed to correct course, he said.


Janet French

Provincial affairs reporter

Janet French covers the Alberta Legislature for CBC Edmonton. She previously spent 15 years working at newspapers, including the Edmonton Journal and Saskatoon StarPhoenix. You can reach her at janet.french@cbc.ca.

With files from Michelle Bellefontaine and Scott Dippel


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