Alberta Premier Jason Kenney's wounds may be self-inflicted but are they politically fatal?

Can Jason Kenney survive politically ? That’s the question facing Alberta’s premier as he refuses to take responsibility for allowing a disastrous fourth wave of the pandemic to overtake the province’s health-care system.

If Kenney's going down, he's not going down without a fight, writes columnist Graham Thomson

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney takes questions after announcing new COVID-19 measures for Alberta in Calgary, Wednesday. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

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.

Can Jason Kenney survive politically ?

That's the question facing Alberta's premier as he refuses to take responsibility for allowing a disastrous fourth wave of the pandemic to overtake the province's health-care system.

For the past 18 months, Kenney has repeatedly boxed himself into a corner over his uneven response to COVID-19 —but this time the box is looking an awful lot like a coffin.

And Kenney seemed to be using a hammer to drive nails into the casket Wednesday night with his confusing and contradictory news conference where he invoked a province-wide public health emergency and introduced, among other things, a bewilderingly entitled "restriction exemption program" that is in fact Kenney's version of a vaccine passport.

"It is now clear that we were wrong and for that I apologize," said Kenney of his ill-fated rush to lift most restrictions on July 1 when he promised Albertans the "best summer ever."

An apology from the normally defiant Kenney? That was a refreshing change.

But then, as the news conference ground on and reporters grilled Kenney on his mishandling of the pandemic, he snatched the apology back: "I don't apologize for the decision to relax public health restrictions in the summer."

This is Kenney-style leadership during what Alberta Health Services is calling the worst health-care crisis in its history. Alberta hospitals have cancelled thousands of surgeries to deal with the flood of COVID-19 patients, most of whom were unvaccinated.

WATCH | Kenney introduces new measures to stop spread of COVID-19

'I apologize,' Kenney says as Alberta declares state of public health emergency

1 year ago
Duration 1:58
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney on Wednesday introduced strict and sweeping new measures to combat the spread of COVID-19 as he apologized for his government's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

AHS is now approaching other provinces to see if they can provide beds for some of Alberta's ICU patients as our system approaches overload.

This shouldn't have happened and Alberta's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, admitted this week that the decision to lift restrictions in July inadvertently set Alberta on a trajectory for failure in September.

But Kenney won't admit that. This is a politician who always seems to choose combat over contrition. And he's in full-fisted combat as his leadership is under attack from all directions, from the public, from the opposition and from within his own government.

On Thursday night, he took to his favoured platform of a Facebook livestream, free from all those pesky journalists, to try and reinforce his message that this wave of pandemic rests solely at the feet of the unvaccinated.

There are the usual suspects in the UCP caucus who routinely complain Kenney has gone too far to restrict people's freedoms and who will rankle at the return to a lockdown.

They're the ones who staged a mini-revolt last April that led to two mutinous MLAs being booted from caucus. However, we're also starting to hear from moderate United Conservative MLAs who are complaining Kenney waited too long to introduce the restrictions he reluctantly announced Wednesday.

"We clearly had 30 days notice that a crisis was looming and nothing was done," said Calgary-Fish Creek MLA Richard Gotfried in a Facebook post Thursday.

"It will cost us lives and I am gutted by the lack of responsiveness to unequivocal advocacy and clear warning signals."

Gotfried might just be trying to placate his urban constituents but it still takes courage in the UCP caucus to speak out against Kenney or his policies.

Tip of the iceberg?

This might be the tip of a rebellious caucus iceberg that has sunk conservative Alberta premiers in the past.

In 1992, Progressive Conservative Premier Don Getty, who was plagued by a recession and chronic unpopularity, was forced out by a relatively gentle coup of his caucus.

In 2011, PC Premier Ed Stelmach resigned after terrified caucus members watched their party losing ground to the burgeoning Wildrose Party.

In 2014, PC Premier Alison Redford abruptly resigned after her "culture of entitlement" leadership style alienated her caucus and the public.

It's important to note a precursor to these party coups was a collapse in the party's fundraising.

Troubling for Kenney is the news that the NDP is routinely raising more money than the United Conservative Party.

Another troubling fact for Kenney is that his mishandling of COVID's fourth wave has created problems for his federal counterpart and ally, Erin O'Toole, as the national election campaign enters its final weekend.

After praising Kenney's handling of the pandemic just days ago, O'Toole faced a grilling by journalists Thursday morning asking what he thinks of Kenney now.

O'Toole, who doesn't want to criticize Kenney but dare not praise him, repeatedly ducked the question and focused on blaming Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.

A campaigning Trudeau, in turn, happily used Kenney's COVID-19 failure to slam O'Toole and then promise to send federal pandemic aid to beleaguered Alberta.

To say Kenney is in trouble is to say Niagara Falls drips water.

It's self-made trouble where Kenney has managed single handedly to obliterate his image as a competent leader. Voters will put up with a lot from their government as long as their premier has at least a veneer of competence. Kenney has rubbed that facade raw.

But he's not likely going anywhere.

Yes, his unfortunate predecessors resigned for much lesser sins than running the province over a pandemic cliff. But as Albertans saw from Kenney's performance Wednesday, he remains unrepentant and combative. And unlike his Conservative predecessors, Kenney is leader of a political party he built himself. What is the UCP if not Kenney's UCP?

One day we'll find out.

But Kenney will do everything he can to make sure that day will not come soon.


Graham Thomson

Freelance contributor

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.


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