Saskatchewan·Analysis

Jason Kenney, Scott Moe face similar COVID-19 crises but different political pressure

Longtime political allies Jason Kenney and Scott Moe, the premiers of Alberta and Saskatchewan, respectively, are facing nearly identical health-care crises, but only one is facing a leadership review.

Alberta premier faces threats from within party, decidedly lower approval ratings

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe, left, and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney have both seen their provincial health-care systems pushed to the brink by the pandemic's fourth wave. But only Kenney is facing a leadership review. (Bryan Eneas/CBC; Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Longtime political allies Jason Kenney and Scott Moe, the premiers of Alberta and Saskatchewan, respectively, are facing nearly identical health-care crises, but only one is facing a leadership review.

Kenney's handling of the fourth wave of COVID-19, which has hit Alberta harder than other provinces, has led to questions about his future as premier.

He met on Wednesday with his United Conservative Party caucus, with his political future said to be in the balance. Kenney emerged from the meeting without seeing a non-confidence motion, but a party leadership review will take place this spring. 

Saskatchewan is experiencing a similar crisis — averaging 279 new cases per 100,000 people over the past seven days, to Alberta's 253, as of Friday. (For comparison, Ontario is averaging 32 cases per 100,000.)

Saskatchewan also has the lowest vaccination rates among all provinces, with 72 per cent, and on Friday reported a record 276 people in hospital and 61 in intensive care units. Alberta also set a record for COVID-19 patients in ICU on Friday with 243.

The difference between the situations for Kenney and Moe, according to political analysts, is that Alberta's premier faces threats within his party and decidedly lower approval ratings.

Health-care workers attend to a COVID-19 patient in the ICU of Peter Lougheed Centre in Calgary on Nov. 14, 2020. Alberta set a record for COVID-19 patients in intensive care on Friday, with 243. (Leah Hennel/Alberta Health Services)

Polling disparity

Moe led his party to a convincing re-election last October, garnering more than 60 per cent of the vote, while Kenney faces a viable threat in former premier Rachel Notley and the NDP in Alberta's next planned election in 2023.

An Angus Reid Institute survey from June showed the Alberta NDP 11 points higher than the UCP, while the Wildrose Independence Party trailed the UCP by 10 per cent among decided voters.

Donation figures show the Alberta NDP was raising more than double the UCP in the early part of 2021.

The same survey placed Kenney's approval at 31 per cent, the lowest among all premiers and 30 points lower than Moe.

Moe is "not facing re-election for quite a while [but] Kenney is facing a moved-up leadership review," said University of Regina political studies professor Tom McIntosh.

"For all the similarities in how they've responded to things, their political situations are quite different."

One nurse injects another with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine at the Regina General Hospital in Regina on Dec. 15, 2020. Saskatchewan has the lowest vaccination rate in the country. (Michael Bell/The Canadian Press)

Political pressure

There are two factions within Kenney's caucus, says Duane Bratt, a political science professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary — one that believes the premier broke promises by last week not keeping the province open without health restrictions and another that thinks the government waited too long to act.

"What they do agree on is Premier Kenney needs to go," Bratt said.

University of Calgary political science professor Lisa Young says she can't see a scenario where Kenney is still premier by the next planned election.

"I think the damage is too great," Young said. "I think that his personal brand is ruined. The current situation is really quite disastrous, and it's going to get worse before it gets better."

But while Kenney faces pressure from within the UCP, McIntosh notes Moe's party does not leak its squabbles publicly.  

"We get a lot of inside information about Alberta caucus meetings in the press," said McIntosh. "We are not hearing about what's going on in Saskatchewan Party caucus meetings. There is a discipline in the Sask Party caucus that any premier or prime minister would love."

Kenney celebrates the lifting of public health restrictions by taking part in Canada Day celebrations in Calgary on July 1. (Larry MacDougal/The Canadian Press)

That said, Moe's insulation may be hurting his pandemic response, according to Murray Mandryk, political columnist for the Regina Leader-Post. Moe has, on several occasions, ignored doctors and other health workers who have formally asked him to impose health measures.

"He's certainly not listening to the doctors who have written him up to five times to do something," Mandryk said. 

"Caucus has kept him isolated from that and that's hugely problematic."

As for the public pressure on Kenney, that might have to do with personality, says Melanee Thomas, a political studies associate professor at the University of Calgary.

"Scott Moe is not nearly as bellicose as Jason Kenney," said Thomas.

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Thomas says that before the fourth wave, the Alberta government was discussing a wage rollback for nurses, which further antagonized health-care workers. Saskatchewan was the first to remove isolation requirements for positive cases, but kept it fairly quiet.

"Scott Moe is not wearing this the way that Jason Kenney is. Kenney's a lightning rod for negative attention," said Thomas.

The UCP government, she says, "thinks that all attention is good attention, even if it's totally negative. I'm not persuaded that it's working out."

Open for summer

Perhaps the biggest similarity in the provinces' COVID-19 policies was their "open for summer" plans.

On July 1, Alberta removed nearly all health restrictions. Kenney and chief medical health officer Dr. Deena Hinshaw said the province was moving from "pandemic to endemic."

On July 11, Saskatchewan removed its public health restrictions. Moe and chief medical health officer Dr. Saqib Shahab spoke of people learning to "live with COVID."

But on Sept. 16, days after eclipsing 500 new cases and one day after Alberta announced new health measures, the Saskatchewan government implemented mandatory masking and announced an upcoming proof-of-vaccination policy — moves that doctors, nurses and medical health officers had been calling for since late August.

When Kenney announced the new measures, he apologized for the province's messaging when it removed restrictions in July.

But that apology has not relieved the pressure.

When asked if he took any responsibility for Saskatchewan's fourth wave, Moe said decisions throughout the pandemic were made to "protect health-care capacity."

Mandryk says it's "patently ridiculous" Moe didn't apologize. 

But, he says, Moe's handling of the fourth wave may not be threatening his job security because he maintains the caucus support that Kenney seems to lack.

That said, Mandryk added: "I do wonder if voter support will start to move for Scott Moe and the Saskatchewan Party because of their handling of the pandemic." 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Adam Hunter

Journalist

Adam Hunter is the provincial affairs reporter at CBC Saskatchewan, based in Regina. He has been with CBC for more than 14 years. Follow him on Twitter @AHiddyCBC. Contact him: adam.hunter@cbc.ca

With files from Janet French

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