Kenney's vacation is over, but his political troubles aren't

Now that Premier Jason Kenney has poked his head over the ramparts via a Facebook live appearance Wednesday night, what will he do about the worrying fourth wave of COVID?

Premier is back in the office but questions linger about his 23-day absence

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney speaks at a news conference Aug. 9 in Edmonton. (Janet French/CBC)

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

OK, now what?

Now that Premier Jason Kenney has poked his head over the ramparts via a Facebook live appearance Wednesday night, what will he do about the worrying fourth wave of COVID?

Other than trying to gaslight us as he did during his Facebook performance where he suggested it was no big deal that he hadn't been seen for 23 days as COVID-19 cases skyrocketed in Alberta and Justin Trudeau called a federal election.

"I don't think people taking a bit of personal time should be a political football," said Kenney who explained he was simply on vacation. His critics, though, say he was in hiding.

There's no reason, I suppose, why he couldn't be doing both: vacationing and hiding.

Depending on where he went, it might have been a staycation. But then again, since we don't know much about his trip, call it an obfuscation. Or considering he left no one to answer questions in person about the fourth wave, call it an abdication.

That he chose to avoid the federal election is not in itself a mystery. Down-in-the-polls Kenney has become so politically toxic that if the United Conservative premier turned up on the campaign trail, Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole would have to wear a hazmat suit.

And then there's pandemic. In June, Kenney promised Albertans the "best summer ever" after he announced the province would be dropping pandemic restrictions July 1 and reopening the province "for good."

The delta variant apparently didn't get the memo. Alberta has seen COVID-19 explode to the point the province is averaging 1,000 new cases a day, where Alberta Health Services is postponing surgeries to free beds up for COVID-19 patients, where the City of Edmonton is re-invoking a mandatory mask mandate for public spaces, and where several other provinces – with fewer cases than Alberta – are introducing vaccine passports.

Perhaps Kenney went on vacation to avoid explaining why he prematurely promised Albertans the best summer as he rushed to lift pandemic restrictions July 1.

Albert Health Minister Tyler Shandro and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney unveil an opening sign after speaking about the Open for Summer Plan and next steps in the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, in Edmonton, Friday, June 18, 2021. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

It now seems the province is on track to deliver the worst Autumn ever where experts with British Columbia's COVID-19 Modelling Group are warning that in October, Alberta could see 6,000 people a day contract the virus, with 1,500 in hospital and 500 of those in ICU.

That's a worst-case scenario but it's a scenario that doesn't seem to frighten the government.

'Wasn't unexpected'

On Tuesday, while delivering optimistic news about the province's finances, Finance Minister Travis Toews suggested the government has not been caught off guard by the current numbers: "We're in the fourth wave at this present time and the delta variant is very contagious, cases are going up. That wasn't unexpected at this point in time."

Not "unexpected"? Yet, as the numbers grew, the premier went on vacation while Health Minister Tyler Shandro and the province's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, communicated with the public via tweets. 

I'm not one for conspiracy theories but you have to wonder if critics of the government are on to something when they argue Kenney wants the delta variant to burn itself out by ripping through the unvaccinated.

Lending credence to this theory are comments from the government's caucus chair Nathan Neudorf who, in an interview last week, seemed to suggest he expected and wanted COVID-19 cases to escalate among the unvaccinated and then quickly drop off as the virus has nowhere else to go – as it did, he said, in the United Kingdom.

Except that in the U.K. the numbers quickly began to rise again. 

After facing a public backlash, Neudorf said he was only speaking for himself, not the government, and was hoping cases would simply level off quickly. But his initial comments would certainly help explain why Kenney and others in government disappeared from public view in the last half of August. They were hoping the case numbers, after suddenly spiking, would suddenly drop.

But they keep rising.

After 18 months of COVID-19 during which Kenney's popularity dropped from 60 per cent to 31 per cent he is still caught between urban voters who want more restrictions and rural voters who want fewer or no restrictions.

"If indeed we do see this wave jeopardizing the health-care system, we may have to take some very targeted actions but nothing like lockdowns," Kenney said Wednesday night in an equivocating comment sure to irritate people on both sides of the issue.

Kenney mentioned that Shandro and Hinshaw would hold a news conference later this week. They didn't do that Thursday. So, expect them to face journalists Friday — on the eve of a long weekend, the favoured time for governments to release bad news and then head to the hills.

That won't be a problem for Alberta government politicians and officials who have had plenty of practice the past three weeks running for the hills.


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.