Kenney is invoking a circuit breaker — but not the kind Alberta needs

As Alberta continues to post the worst per-capita COVID-19 numbers in North America, Premier Jason Kenney has introduced a circuit breaker.

Premier Kenney shuts down legislature as COVID numbers spike, writes columnist Graham Thomson

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney speaks at a news conference earlier this year. Kenney is expected to announce more COVID-19 restrictions on Tuesday. (Government of Alberta)

This column is an opinion from Graham Thomson, an award-winning journalist who has covered Alberta politics for more than 30 years.

As Alberta continues to post the worst per-capita COVID-19 numbers in North America, Premier Jason Kenney has introduced a circuit breaker.

A political circuit breaker, that is. Not a COVID lockdown circuit breaker, as recommended by doctors.

Kenney's sudden and unilateral decision to shut down the work of the legislative assembly for at least two weeks might not grab you as significant. It is.

Kenney has made a point in the past COVID-filled year of keeping the legislature open and the MLAs sitting for more days than any other provincial assembly. Last year, Kenney actually referenced the British Parliament working during the blitz when bombs were falling on London.

"The work of democracy does not end in a crisis," declared Kenney.

Unless, that is, Kenney is facing a political crisis. In that case, it's lock the doors, head to the bomb shelter and start up the press-release machine.

"The government has determined that having MLAs return to Edmonton from all over the province after constituency week is no longer prudent," said government House leader Jason Nixon. "Suspending proceedings is the right thing to do as case counts increase."

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"Prudent" is not the first word that popped into NDP Leader Rachel Notley's head when she learned Sunday that the sitting would not resume on Monday.

"He's a coward," said Notley. "This premier has locked the people out of their own legislature at a time when they are likely looking more than ever to that very building, and the people running the government inside of it, for leadership."

For Kenney, running from Notley is probably the better part of valour. Or, perhaps, it's simply better to be thought a fool during a pandemic than turn up for question period and remove all doubt.

Political crisis

Kenney's troubles don't stop with Notley.

He is embroiled in a steadily increasing crisis where 18 of his own caucus members have publicly criticized his COVID-related restrictions, UCP members have called for a leadership review and a recent opinion poll conducted for the CBC indicates the NDP would likely win an election if held today.

Kenney is caught in a political conflict of interest where the people most likely to flout the law and hold protest rodeos are rural Albertans with a strong libertarian streak. In other words, Kenney supporters. And Kenney is loath to antagonize them further with more restrictions. 

But his resolve seems to be cracking as he telegraphed his intent on Monday to impose more restrictions this week.

Suspending the work of the legislature doesn't end his crisis but it does give Kenney some breathing room. It means he avoids running the daily gauntlet of question period where he is pummelled daily by Notley who just might have the easiest job in Canadian politics: opposition leader to Kenney during a public health emergency.

In holding Kenney to account, Notley is armed not only with Alberta's abysmal COVID-19 numbers but also Kenney's confused and, at times, hypocritical response to the emergency.

On Monday, he admitted that Alberta's mounting COVID numbers indicate the province has a problem with non-compliance. He suggested that's because the province has a younger population oblivious to the danger.

Hmm. Might I suggest it's because he is allowing 18 members of his caucus to openly criticize COVID-19 measures?

Or maybe it's because hundreds of Albertans held a "no more lockdowns" protest rodeo in Bowden last weekend and Kenney did little but send out some sternly worded tweets telling people, by golly, to "smarten up."

For months Kenney has downplayed the risk of transmission in schools and resisted pleas from teachers to get them vaccinated. On Monday, Kenney announced teachers and others in contact with students could get a jab starting Tuesday.

It was the right action to take but Kenney is loath to admit he made a mistake by not acting sooner.

Also on Monday, he accused others of playing the "blame game" with COVID-19 and then a mere breath later threw shade on the federal government for not closing the border to international travellers sooner.

Kenney can't seem to help himself.

He is constantly on the lookout for enemies inside Alberta and outside.

But the biggest enemy is staring him in the face — every time he looks in the mirror.


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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