Edmonton

OPINION | Pandemic priorities: Premier's response to COVID-19 crisis goes beyond politics

On Tuesday afternoon, Premier Jason Kenney declared the COVID-19 pandemic a public health emergency that “will test all of us.”

For politicians, the COVID-19 outbreak will be a test of leadership

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney announced on Tuesday, March 17, 2020, that the province is now under a state of public emergency. (Art Raham/CBC)

On Tuesday afternoon, Premier Jason Kenney declared the COVID-19 pandemic a public health emergency that "will test all of us."

Will it ever.

It will test our emergency workers, our doctors, our nurses, our first responders. It will test the strength of our communities and the bonds of our society. 

For parents trapped in self-isolation with children, it will be a test of patience and resilience.

For the social-media trolls who argue this is just part of a conspiracy to shut down the economy, it is a test they have already failed.

For our politicians, it will be a test of leadership.

And not just for the governing United Conservatives.

This is a test for the NDP Opposition, too.

This is a test to see if they can work together, move beyond partisanship, and bury the hatchet somewhere other than in each other's head.

On Sunday, Kenney visited Edmonton International Airport after hearing complaints the federal screening process for international travellers was inadequate. He found that to be true and in a social media post said he had directed his own officials to "deploy provincial resources to AB airports."

His post included four photographs of himself at the airport looking dutifully concerned.

That set off a mini political storm with some people praising him while others accused him of staging a photo op during a public health emergency.

One NDP staff member, apparently suspicious of all the positive comments on Kenney's post, went so far as to issue her own social media post encouraging people to attack him and his supporters online: "Let's make their lives difficult shall we?"

Yes, let's make life difficult for the premier and people who say nice things about him during a public health emergency.

The New Democrat staffer later apologized online. But not before managing to taint the NDP as a party that is playing partisan politics during a pandemic.

Oh, you can certainly accuse the UCP of playing partisan politics — but not because Kenney visited the airport Sunday night.

He was there because of legitimate concerns about the border screening process at Edmonton's airport. 

Yes, Kenney took along a photographer. But the pictures helped draw attention to his social media post. His post was in no way partisan.

The following day the federal government upped its screening process and Kenney thanked the prime minister.

Think back to the Fort McMurray fire in 2016 and how then-premier Rachel Notley held daily briefings to update Albertans.

Premier Rachel Notley speaks to reporters about the Fort McMurray re-entry plan in May 2016. (CBC)

She seemed to be everywhere. Notley became the face of disaster response. She was rightfully praised. I'm not sure anybody accused her of pandering to the cameras or playing politics.

She was simply showing leadership.

"It's about showing people the premier is engaged; people need to see their leader is out there." 

That quote could have come from Notley's communications people in 2016. But it's from Kenney's press secretary, Christine Myatt, on Tuesday.

Alberta has seen what happens when a premier is not engaged during an emergency.

In 1987, when a major Edmonton-based financial institution collapsed, then-premier Don Getty disappeared. His office said he was busy working out of his office. He wasn't. A photographer for the Edmonton Journal tracked him down to a golf course and took a picture. If Getty's political career wasn't in trouble then, it was when a photograph of the premier "working out of the office" hit the front page.

People want to see their premiers as leaders during a crisis. It doesn't matter that they're not a firefighter or a doctor, that they won't extinguish one flame or cure one patient.

But go off and play golf — and lose your own seat the next election (as Getty did in 1989).

This is not to say the Kenney government isn't playing politics.

Kenney rushed approval of the provincial budget, limiting debate and making sure his economic plan slid through so quickly he might as well have slathered the walls of the legislative assembly in grease.

The government made it sound as if the province would grind to a halt during the middle of a pandemic if the budget wasn't passed.

In fact, as the NDP opposition pointed out, the government could have used supplementary spending to keep the lights on and services intact without having a new budget in effect.

The last time that happened was just last year when the NDP government didn't pass a new budget before the provincial election.Things didn't grind to a halt then and they wouldn't have this time. 

The NDP understandably accused the government of trying to do an end run around democracy by fast-tracking its budget — a budget that is already woefully out of date because of the collapse in the price of oil.

Kenney might not be playing politics with the COVID-19 pandemic but he seems to be playing politics during the COVID-19 pandemic.


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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.