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Travel by Alberta politicians could make it harder to enforce public health rules, experts say

Some Albertans may be less likely to follow public health orders after several politicians admitted to leaving the country despite pandemic restrictions, according to experts in human behaviour.

Lack of consistency in following health orders can negatively influence behaviour

Aaron Penson is one of the people behind a banner set up outside former Municipal Affairs Minister Tracy Allard's Grande Prairie constituency office on Jan. 3, 2020. (Aaron Penson)

Some Albertans may be less likely to follow public health orders after several politicians admitted to leaving the country despite pandemic restrictions, according to experts in human behaviour.

People model their actions after their leaders, said Dr. Lynne Honey, professor of psychology at MacEwan University.

"It's really critical for those that we view as role models and those who are setting the rules to be the ones who demonstrate what that looks like to the rest of us, and for there to be a great deal of consistency," she said.

"People get very confused and are very likely to skirt the rules and skirt regulations when those regulations are not consistent or clear." 

Grande Prairie MLA Tracy Allard resigned from her role as minister of municipal affairs Monday after news emerged that she had travelled to Hawaii over the holidays.

Premier Jason Kenney also demoted five other United Conservative Party MLAs who travelled internationally over the holidays. 

Looking for loopholes

Politicians who don't follow public health orders risk emboldening those who don't believe the measures are necessary, said Amy Kaler, professor of sociology at the University of Alberta.

People who already doubt that the pandemic is a real threat may further entrench their beliefs, she said. 

"Conspiracy theorists have been given a late Christmas present from the government."

Those doubts could influence whether or not Albertans choose to get vaccinated against COVID-19 when the time comes, Kaler said.

"I am hoping that this doesn't cause people who were sort of wavering on that vaccine disbelief precipice to fall over the side."

Betrayal of trust

The politicians' decisions to travel during the pandemic jeopardizes the public's trust in their leadership, said Calgary psychologist Angela Grace.

"It really does bring into question the trust that we have in our leaders to be honest and walk your talk and not just pay lip service to what the people need and then do things behind their backs."

It's more difficult to trust a leader who is inconsistent, Honey said.

"We trust people or institutions when there is consistency between what they say and what they do. We lose that trust when there's clear evidence that that say/do correspondence is broken."

Recovering from that breach of trust will require a change in messaging, said David Rast, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Alberta.

Politicians need to demonstrate that they are following the same rules as everyone else, he said.

"Right now, they're creating this dichotomy where they're different from us," Rast said. "They're not part of the same group. They don't have to follow the rules."

Feeling angry is normal

Many Albertans are angry because they feel deceived by political leaders who appear to be living by a different set of rules, Honey said. 

"That's how you get people riled up and that's how you get people unwilling to follow along, because, in fact, we know now that we're not all in it together." 

Being angry at the situation is understandable, Grace said, but she cautions against letting anger take over. 

"Write your MLA, write the premier, express yourself that way and then drop it," Grace suggested. "It's not a time to throw the baby out with the bathwater."
 

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