Edmonton

OPINION | Alberta premier targets Ottawa in pivot to pre-pandemic politics

Watching Alberta politics these days is like riding a time machine into the past when COVID-19 didn't exist or into a future where it's been conquered.

We haven't heard the 'more Alberta, less Ottawa' trope much the past 10 weeks

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has dusted off his Captain Alberta cape, and is proudly wearing it into battle once more against the Justin Trudeau Liberals. (Canadian Press photos)

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Pandemic? What pandemic?

Watching Alberta politics these days is like riding a time machine into the past when COVID-19 didn't exist or into a future where it's been conquered. Or perhaps we woke up in a parallel universe.

Because Alberta politics is beginning to act as if the pandemic suddenly disappeared.

Last week, Premier Jason Kenney called the COVID-19 virus the flu, as in, "an influenza of this nature," even though it's a coronavirus that's more contagious and more deadly than the flu and has no vaccine. He also announced — without first informing Alberta's chief medical officer — that he would let the province's public health emergency lapse June 15.

This week, he announced he'd like to fast-track phase 2 of the business reopening (that includes movie theatres and libraries).

But, most tellingly of all, he resumed his heated attacks against the federal Liberal government.

If nothing else, this signals a return to normality for Kenney who is no longer pleading for more pandemic financial relief from Ottawa.

Kenney once again on offensive

After 10 weeks of biting his tongue and smiling through gritted teeth whenever he talked kindly about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the federal Liberals, Kenney is once more on the offensive.

And there was no better target for him than the recent federal ban on 1,500 "assault-style" firearms.

On Wednesday, Kenney held a news conference with Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer where they wrapped themselves in the Alberta flag while taking shots not only at the federal government but at Central Canadians.

"While some people in faraway places like Toronto may not understand the reality, hundreds of thousands of Albertans simply use firearms as a part of everyday life," said Kenney, who explained he was "defending law-abiding Albertans against a federal attack against their rights as law-abiding firearms owners."

Not to be outdone in the outrage department, Schweitzer promised to stand up for "an Alberta-made justice system."

"(Albertans) don't want policy developed in downtown Toronto, they want policy developed right here in Alberta," said Schweitzer, who added: "We're going to have more Alberta and less Ottawa in our justice system."

Picking fights with Ottawa

We haven't heard the "more Alberta, less Ottawa" trope much the past 10 weeks as the Kenney government took what might be called a "less Alberta, more Ottawa" approach to emergency financial help.

But now the Alberta government is pivoting with all the subtlety of a dog running on linoleum suddenly trying to change direction. 

It's clumsy but for Kenney it means he's getting back on track. He's picking fights with Ottawa, taking potshots at "faraway places like Toronto," focusing on his rural base of support, and once again pushing an Alberta-first agenda that could include setting up an Alberta provincial police force and Alberta pension plan.

"Stay tuned for the Fair Deal panel (report)," Kenney said this week when asked if he's in favour of cutting ties with the RCMP. Kenney has said the Fair Deal report will be coming out when the pandemic is over. You have to wonder if in Kenney's mind this means "tomorrow."

Kenney also said he is "seriously considering" launching a legal challenge against the federal government's gun ban.

Never mind that firearms fall under federal jurisdiction.

Time machine to Klein days

Here's where the time machine seems to have taken us back to the days of former premier Ralph Klein. Klein made something of a career launching lawsuits, or threatening legal action, against the federal government on a host of issues including the GST, social transfer payments and, coincidentally, the gun registry.

Klein's legal fights were the political equivalent of tilting at windmills but he knew that for a populist politician winning was not crucial; it's the donning of the armour and the spurring of the steed.

This is political theatre and Kenney is such a master at it he should have his own show at the Edmonton Fringe Festival (if only the festival hadn't been cancelled because of the pandemic).

Kenney would also like to put the pandemic behind him because it hasn't given him a popularity boost, unlike just about every other political leader in the country.

An Angus Reid poll about premiers released last week ranked Kenney as second last, with a 48-per-cent approval rating, whereas Ontario's controversial Doug Ford, for example, enjoyed 69 per cent approval.

This week, a poll by Research Co. indicated that 56 per cent of Albertans said their province would be better off with a different premier in charge, the highest level of disapproval in the country.

Consequently, Kenney has dusted off his Captain Alberta cape that had sat forgotten the past 10 weeks, perhaps under a mound of applications for federal aid. He is proudly wearing it into battle once more against the Trudeau Liberals.

The pandemic might not be over medically, but in Kenney's mind it seems to be over politically.

About the Author

You can find columnist Graham Thomson's thoughts and analysis on provincial politics every Friday at cbc.ca/edmonton, on CBC Edmonton Television News and during Radio Active on CBC Radio One (93.9FM/740AM) and on Twitter at @gthomsonink.

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