OPINION | Kenney under fire from the front-line workers in the war on COVID-19

As if things weren’t already bad enough for Premier Jason Kenney as he leads Alberta through a pandemic and unprecedented economic collapse, he’s now being sued by Alberta doctors.

You can't blame Kenney for the pandemic or economic collapse, but you can certainly blame him for the lawsuit

Premier Jason Kenney at Alberta Legislature addressing the COVID-19 outbreak last month. The Alberta government is currently being sued by the Alberta Medical Association. (Art Raham/CBC)

As if things weren't already bad enough for Premier Jason Kenney as he leads Alberta through a pandemic and unprecedented economic collapse, he's now being sued by Alberta doctors.

For Kenney, who's been trying to portray himself as a noble wartime leader, this is a public relations nightmare of Biblical proportions.

It would be like Rachel Notley, when she was premier during the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire, being sued by firefighters.

The Alberta Medical Association launched the lawsuit on Thursday accusing the Kenney government of violating doctors' charter rights when in February it unilaterally ripped up the existing master agreement between physicians and government.

The lawsuit is asking for two things: "Fair and reasonable negotiations toward an agreement [and] the right to third party arbitration, which is something that is available to every other essential service provider in this province."

Oh, and $250 million in damages.

You can't blame Kenney for the pandemic or the economic collapse. But you can certainly blame him for this lawsuit.

He deliberately picked a fight with doctors by tearing up a perfectly legal agreement and replacing it with his own government-imposed deal that, among other things, overturned how physicians are compensated.

When he started his attack on doctors as a way to keep a lid on costs in the health-care system, COVID-19 was just a gleam in a lab technician's eye. Now, it's a pandemic and doctors are our front-line troops, alongside nurses and other health-care workers.

And Kenney is being painted as the enemy by those front-line heroes.

It'd be like soldiers during the Second World War suing Prime Minister Mackenzie King.

Shot across the bow

The government hasn't officially responded to the lawsuit yet but the past few months Kenney and Health Minister Tyler Shandro have emphasized they are not cutting overall spending on doctors. But they have made enough changes to physician compensation that it seems every doctor is complaining. Not that they're abandoning their posts in the face of COVID-19.

"Albertans don't need to worry about physicians. We are there for them, 100 per cent," vowed AMA president Dr. Christine Molnar.

Molnar hasn't just fired a shot across Kenney's bow with the lawsuit. She is aiming for the captain and his first mate, Shandro.

"If you told me a year ago that I would serve the minister of health with a statement of claim for a constitutional challenge, in the midst of the worst public health crisis in a century, I would have been incredulous," Molnar told reporters.

The trauma bay is photographed during simulation training at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto last year. A lawsuit from the AMA accuses the Kenney government of violating doctors' charter rights when it unilaterally ripped up the existing master agreement between physicians and government. (Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press)

The AMA's lawsuit is both practical and political. Doctors want to take back control of how they're compensated. And they want the public to know how shabbily they've been treated by the government.

By launching the suit, the AMA is launching a rocket to get our attention during the barrage of pandemic-related stories that on Thursday, for example, focused on the latest jobless numbers.

Canada lost one million jobs in March; Alberta, 117,000.

And that's just the beginning of the economic slide. Kenney has already predicted Alberta's unemployment rate will hit 25 per cent this year as the province is hit by the triple whammy of a health crisis, an economic recession and a disastrously low price for Western Canadian Select oil.

The NDP Opposition is accusing the government on a daily basis of using the pandemic as cover, among other things, to ram through legislation giving itself unprecedented emergency powers and triggering the mass layoffs of education workers.

The NDP is happily nipping at Kenney's heels daily, both as a short-term tactic to hold the government to account and as a long-term strategy to undermine the government's credibility. 

After the pandemic

New Democrats would never be so crass or foolish to admit they're happy to watch as Kenney's premiership is hit by a relentless tsunami of bad news. But they must have been indulging in a bit of schadenfreude after learning of the AMA's lawsuit.

It's easy to imagine Kenney's fight with doctors will come back to bite him later.

But will it?

What will Albertans think after the emergency is over?

Kenney has said this year's provincial deficit might reach $20 billion. What will Albertans think when they see the size of the provincial debt when things get back to normal?

Will they be on the side of doctors or on the side of a government that once again wants to resume budget cuts and get back on track to balance the budget?

When Kenney was asked about the AMA lawsuit on Thursday he didn't look particularly stressed. He repeated a claim he has made before, that Alberta doctors are the highest paid in the country. 

By pointing that out, he was subtly framing their dispute in terms of doctors trying to protect their income, not health care.

He said many physicians run a "private business" much like any other private business with the inference being that many private businesses are being hurt right now, so why should doctors think themselves immune?

Of course, during a pandemic doctors are not just another private business. They are our front-line soldiers.

But Kenney, being a student of history, would know that Canadians have a history of lionizing the troops during times of war and forgetting them in times of peace.

This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


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.