[00:00:00] Jordan Heath-Rawlings: This pandemic doesn’t leave politicians with many good choices. That’s never been more clear than recently in Alberta. Premier Jason Kenney has brought in more restrictions to combat a brutal third wave of COVID-19, and he’s complained about those restrictions every step of the way. To the people in the center or on the left of the political spectrum those restrictions are too little and too late, and they won’t win him any support. But to a good chunk of his own caucus, the new restrictions are an attack on the freedom of Albertans. Kenney has been trying to find the middle ground between these two camps, there just isn’t any.
Without restrictions, hospitals in Alberta cities fill up, and people die. But restrictions as a whole have become repellent to the hardcore rural conservative base. And that’s the base that put Kenney in power. So there are right choices here, [00:01:00] obviously. The right choices save lives and Kenney is reluctantly making them. But there are no good choices for him as a politician or for the United Conservative Party as a group, and that has thrown the future of Alberta into question.
I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings, this is The Big Story. Jason Markusoff is the Alberta correspondent for Maclean’s. Hey, Jason.
Jason Markusoff: Hello.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Why don’t we start, um, just because the reality of the situation will kind of play into all the politics we’re going to discuss, by telling the rest of Canada, how it’s going in Alberta right now?
Jason Markusoff: It’s going bad. Um, to set it up and put context on it, uh, the second, in the second wave Alberta had the highest active case rate of any other province on a per capita basis. We have now passed the [00:02:00] levels, uh, we, we, we saw at the peak of the second wave now in Alberta’s third wave, but, uh, that trajectory is pretty rough here. Uh, we are, uh, on the brink of, uh, having the, uh, a really bad crisis, uh, even worse than we have right now.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: How has the government responded? Um, what kind of new measures are coming or have come?
Jason Markusoff: Alberta remains a one of the freest, uh, places in the country at this point, compared to other provinces, you can still do, do a lot. You can go to the mall, you can get a haircut, you can get a haircut at the mall, uh, here in Alberta.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Really?
Jason Markusoff: Yes. Malls have been, uh, remained open throughout the second wave and this wave, and things did go down, uh, in January. And then Kenney was very eager to open things up again. Um, he’s had to put in some closures, restaurants are now closed to, uh, indoor dining.
On Thursday, uh, a day after saying he [00:03:00] questioned the value of putting in more restrictions because people may not follow them, and it’s not totally clear that they’re going to work, he added more restrictions. Uh, he closed, uh, middle and high schools in several jurisdictions and he also, uh, finally closed, uh, gyms, uh, which he had partially closed, uh, previously. Uh, but he’s left a lot open still, um, because Jason Kenney, uh, is very, uh, deferential to employers and businesses, uh, during this pandemic.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Well, this is the crux of what we’re going to get at today because I kind of, as dire as the situation is, you know, it’s, it’s really interesting to watch Kenney try to walk that line, I guess, between keeping his constituents and the province safe and representing the businesses that won him, uh, the Premiership.
Jason Markusoff: It’s, and maybe I shouldn’t have specified that it was the businesses, um, there’s also this [00:04:00] other section of Alberta he’s, uh appealing to in this, and that’s the rural conservative base. Um, the people who elected him, he did very well in, uh, cities like Calgary as well. But, uh, it’s those diehard rock ribbed, um, people on who generally lean more conservative than those in urban areas. And in some cases haven’t seen the, uh, impact or severe spread of the, uh, coronavirus or haven’t consistently. And that’s a lot of people in his own caucus and, uh, people who donate to his party and who organize. Um, they are the pit and prudent juice of the old Wildrose party. Uh, one of the two parties, uh, Jason Kenney fused together to create his United Conservative coalition to win the last election.
Um, he’s very concerned about how those people feel. And he’s, he’s in some large ways. One of them, Jason Kenney has spoken much more about freedom, um, and civil liberties [00:05:00] as a, as weighing heavily on his, uh, his decision-making in this and other premiers. Other premiers express worries about businesses express worries about liberties. Um, he has, uh, oftentimes really denounced those who want lockdowns or more restrictive measures.
Ultimately though, he’s a kind of seeing the writing on the wall, found religion on, uh, the trajectory of, uh, Alberta’s hospital situation and, uh, both in the second wave and third wave had to backtrack on some of his, uh, bravado and, uh, put in from a restrictions. Jason Kenney does not, at this point, out rule out, um, some kind of hard lockdown in the future, but, uh, he remains resistant. I mean, there seems to be a constant, you know, series of monologues with him where he’ll argue with himself from day to day. Um, this past week was remarkable how on Wednesday he was booing the idea of more restrictive measures and then on Thursday, uh, saying, yeah, we got to put them in and maybe there should even be some curfews [00:06:00] in some areas where the municipalities want it.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: What does that do, um, internally, and to the United Conservative Party? I mean, there have been, uh, and correct me if I’m wrong, but more than a few instances of, of his own caucus, kind of back-talking the restrictions as he’s announced them.
Jason Markusoff: A few weeks ago when Jason Kenney, uh, announced that restaurants can no longer have indoor dining, there were 16, ultimately 17 MLA’s, uh, in his caucus who, uh, signed or advocated for a letter denouncing those. That is a significant portion, I think third or more than third or quarter of a 62 member, member caucus. It’s two thirds of the people who are, uh, rural backbenchers, ones outside of the big cities.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right.
Jason Markusoff: So it’s a big sizeable chunk of his caucus as he he’s allowed to have this open descent, kind of people, uh, appealing to, uh, the Jason Kenney that was more [00:07:00] loose about restrictions before he, uh, clamped down a bit.
Um, those are people who really, uh, who are kind of playing on his, uh, his hard conservative id, uh, rather than the, uh, the ego and super ego that had been regulating, uh, him and ultimately the government into putting in a slightly, a harder, uh, restrictions to control the pandemic. But there are those who don’t believe in them. There are those who harken to his earlier comments about really supporting small business. Um, there’s a lot of dialogue and rhetoric among those people. And you hear it in other circles as well in Ontario, uh, Randy Hillier types.
Um, and they talk about the mental health toll of the, uh, of restrictions. Uh, as though there are no mental health tolls of, uh, the risk of getting coronavirus and the high active cases that make people paranoid about functioning in society as well. Um, because their fear that they, they are frontline workers who are going to get sick [00:08:00] or they are going to get sick because coronavirus is so prevalent in our communities right now.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: So Kenney is maybe after, uh, denouncing lockdowns and the harder stuff has also managed to embrace the public health measures that need to be taken. That’s made them unpopular with some members of his own party. How has it impacted him in the polls?
Jason Markusoff: He’s a, for seven months now, or seven months or so, he’s been the second, most popular party leader. Um, Rachel Notley is more popular than him and her party is. Rachel Notley won that election in 2015, uh, was swept out, uh, under a whole bunch of economic, uh, frustration by Albertans.
But since last fall, since the second wave, uh, Albertans have been saying that she’s more popular and this comes, this speaks to a problem Jason Kenney has, he is working on the base of his party. [00:09:00] In some ways it is a shrinking base because people are leaking out to the right to some very far right parties.
Some people are just frustrated that he is putting in restrictions entirely, and other people are leaking from the left and center of the big tent he, uh, forged in, in Calgary, in the Edmonton suburbs. And it’s not just because of his, uh, very inconsistent and, uh, johnny-come-lately, uh, management of the coronavirus crisis.
It’s on a whole bunch of other things he’s done, uh, Policy-wise to irk Albertons, be it proposing to close and defund some Alberta parks to opening the Eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains for more coal mining and exploration to a very drastic overhaul of the curriculum that teachers and school boards and anybody who has any expertise in education say won’t work, um, is overly ideological.
Um, so there are for a bunch of reasons that Jason Kenney has uh, been sliding in the [00:10:00] polls to the point where Rachel Notley, if the election were to be held today, would be our next premier with a probable majority.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Has Kenney tried to address, um, at all the fact that he’s kind of in a no-win situation with either side? Am I, maybe I’m describing that wrong, but that’s kind of what it sounds like, you know, he can’t fully embrace, uh, the stuff that would win him back, some of the left or center votes, uh, without totally alienating his base.
Jason Markusoff: He’s- when he’s apologetic, when he expressed frustration, he tends to express frustration more to those who agree with the other side of Jason Kenney, the, the Jason Kenney id I was talking about. Um, he expresses sorrow, um, and solidarity with those who are frustrated with and sick of restrictions who don’t believe in restrictions. Uh, he expresses, uh, solidarity with those people in the business community who, uh, want to keep their businesses open and mitigate risks in their own ways.
Um, he’s far less, uh, sympathetic to those, [00:11:00] uh, in the medical professions and other advocates urging more restrictions. When schools have closed in this province lately, when a lot of the middle schools and high schools have closed, it’s not been because of the premier, uh, trying to head off a crisis. It’s been because school boards are finding that there are so many teachers in quarantine and so much infection in the schools, uh, that their system can’t bring in enough substitute teachers to handle them.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: That’s not great.
Jason Markusoff: No, it’s, it’s, it’s a real mess. They’ve been requesting, uh, to the province, uh, to let them go online. And in some cases, the province has said, no, you’re not, things aren’t bad enough yet. Um, hang tight.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: I was preparing to talk to you about this today. And then I knew we were going to talk about COVID and Kenney’s response to it. Um, but I also was checking out some of your, your reporting from Alberta earlier this year, and you wrote a piece in February called “Jason Kenney Didn’t Come Back For This”. And I wonder if you could apply that to this [00:12:00] situation as well now, given that he’s facing, uh, it from both sides.
Jason Markusoff: Jason Kenney was a very, is a very skilled politician. Um, he came into this job as Alberta’s premier and leader of the United Conservatives with, uh, one of the most sterling resumes and, uh, compliments, uh, on his political acumen, organizational skills, and policy mind from all corners. I think he came to Alberta, um, with a lot of ideals about what Alberta is, how conservative Albertans want their province to be. He was going to bring things back not to, just to undo, uh, the last four years of NDP government that we had prior to his premiership, but also a lot of the more centrist, regressive, conservative leadership we had had previously under a premiers like Jim Prentice and Alison Redford.
Um, he’s run into a lot of, uh, pushback on some of those measures because it turns out people like social services, they like [00:13:00] quality education. They like, uh, great parks. They don’t want, they don’t think that a whole bunch of more jobs in a Southwestern Alberta are worth, uh, ripping up mountains to explorate coal.
Um, when it comes to the pandemic, Jason Kenney was quite confident in the way he had handled things in the first wave, you know, he was restricting things like everybody else. Um, malls were closed. Barbershops, outdoor gatherings were, were restricted. Uh, he was very excited to reopen things and in the second wave he thought he could avoid, uh, once again, like he did in the first wave, this sort of crisis level situation that there were in Ontario and Quebec and to a lesser extent, uh, British Columbia.
That didn’t happen. Um, and he wa- he really struggled to reconcile his ideological preferences and this pro-business message that he, that he had fostered for so many years, um, with reality. And it [00:14:00] turned out to please nobody, his, uh, his approach. And we’re seeing some of the exact same things, uh, with this third wave, up to, and including, uh, his, his tendency to say one thing on a Wednesday about restrictions and then apply a whole bunch of new restrictions on a Thursday.
I’ll give you one, uh, idea about one other point about, uh, how different Jason Kenney’s approach has been than to any other provinces. On Thursday, he made a point of saying that this was the first time he was going to say this, but he thinks that people should stay home.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: He’d never said that before?
Jason Markusoff: Well, you, you might think, “Hasn’t everybody been saying this? Didn’t, didn’t Doug Ford cut this video of him saying it a zillion times in-”
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Yes!
Jason Markusoff: “-In a bunch of, uh, in a bunch of different languages? Didn’t Justin Trudeau and Dr. Theresa Tam, haven’t they been saying this since March?” No. Jason Kenney had been saying, go support businesses as you can, go function in life. We don’t want to [00:15:00] nanny state you into staying home. Finally in at the end of April, 2021 in the second April of this pandemic, Jason Kenney had, uh, realized that restrictions aren’t working, a lot of his messaging isn’t working, and he needs to slightly shift his message.
But so much of it seems half-hearted or capricious, you know? One of the, when he announced these measures, uh, last Thursday, uh, Dean Bennett, uh, the Canadian Press reporter had a very pointed and fair question, “You totally changed your mind, it seems, uh, from the day before. How are we to assume that you’re not going to just totally change the game 24 hours later?”
Jason Kenney didn’t obviously take time to take kindly to that, uh, question, but, uh, it really speaks to, uh, his ethos and his inconsistency, uh, in this. And I think we see a lot of that in how his conservative base reply, uh, response. Because they’re seeing him, you [00:16:00] know, they’re saying, “Hey, we like that Kenney from a few weeks ago, when he said that restrictions don’t work and we should be free. And now he’s having to say the opposite.” And then on the other side of things, there’s this huge, um, majority slash plurality of, uh, the population that thinks that he’s been inconsistent and weak on this to start. And it’s because of that, that Alberta, it has more cases in any other jurisdiction in the country.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Obviously, um, he could have locked down earlier, uh, and put in more restrictions and the COVID situation in Alberta would be better. But was there ever a way, just given what you’ve kind of described about both sides? You know, it sounds like he’s, he’s vacillating back and forth um, trying to please two parties. Was there ever a way in which he could lean into one side or the other and actually emerge, uh, popular enough to win reelection? Or was this just kind of what was going to happen with a crisis like this.
Jason Markusoff: I mean, [00:17:00] there’s, you’re going to face frustrations, uh, anywhere. And obviously Alberta is, you know, there are still a lot of very, you know, fundamentalist conservatives out there. Um, they’re very noisy. They don’t, they’re not a majority. There are certainly not as a, you know, a critic- a huge critical mass. Um, they’re there in probably greater extent than they are in other provinces. The reality though, is, is that Jason Kenney has, has fostered this, uh, this and encouraged this group to, uh, develop and foster and build.
As well, he hasn’t been up pushing back against them hard. He’s been sympathizing with them and being, and being contrite with them. And he’s been letting his other political colleagues, his own party members, um, speak out against him. He’s been giving them that oxygen, I guess, because he feels that they are, if not, he’ll be toppled right away. And, uh, there, you know, there’s going to be even more open warfare if he, uh, tries to tamp down that.
It’s, it’s hard [00:18:00] to say definitively, if, if any, uh, political leader might have been, uh, more, you know, easier on this one. But, uh, the fact that he’s been going back and forth from the very beginning and the fact that he tries to act like himself and then has to go against his own personal preference, and it’s so clear that he does. It’s so clear that he’s engaged in these, uh, these almost Shakespearian monologues from act to act, you know. A lot of this, uh, frustration, uh, in the public, uh, might be of, uh, of his own doing.
And there’s one worry coming down the road that I hear a lot of people talking about, and it’s about vaccine hesitancy in Alberta. There was an Angus Reid poll that showed that 28% of Albertans, far more than any other province, are unsure or reluctant to embrace the vaccine. You know, we haven’t seen that those numbers bear out in the world yet, um, because there are still so many people keen to take vaccines. But if we get to a [00:19:00] point in, in late June where Alberta has a much lower uptake in uh, than other provinces in vaccines. Um, then there’s a whole other level of problem.
Jason Kenney, a few weeks ago had been talking about how the vaccines are going to get us out of there- this, and Alberta is going to have the greatest summer ever, he kept saying. We’ll have the stampede in July, we’ll have summer festivals, we’ll lift all restrictions. Um, as the third wave has become more severe in Alberta, and that clearly does not seem to be the case, um, he’s had to dial that rhetoric back a lot.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Last question. What happens if, uh, in order to save lives and end the pandemic, Kenney has to do harder lockdowns, has to do a curfew, um, has to push, uh, Albertans to get vaccinated? None of that stuff is going to go over well within those ranks on his own party. How, how thin is the ice he’s [00:20:00] on with his own caucus, I guess as my last question?
Jason Markusoff: It, it’s, it’s hard to say at this point, I don’t have a huge, uh, scope into his caucus. Um, it, you know, there are, there’s a lot of cantankerousness about the, ’bout the restrictions. Um, does he persuade people to ride it out for a few months longer until we get the vaccines, um, and there is light at the end of the tunnel? He is, you know, one of the lights at the end of the tunnel we hear Jason Kenney talking about is these quote unquote fair deal measures. Jason Kenney has been kind of using some of that anti-Ottawa firewall rhetoric a lot, and that plays really well to the red meat base of his party.
And in the fall, we’re going to see some of that play out. He’s going to have elections for, uh, Senate candidates, even though that’s not a real thing, even though it doesn’t work that way, but we like the idea that we can elect our own senators and for, and persuade the prime minister to appoint them.
Uh, there’s going to be an, uh, referendum, [00:21:00] uh, that’s very popular among some people in Alberta, uh, to remove the principle of calling on Ottawa, to remove the principle of equalization from the constitution. It sounds wonky, but it’s basically comes down to this fundamental sense of unfairness Albertans have felt, uh, because their politicians tell it’s something they should feel. Uh, that, the have-not provinces, uh, get all this money from Albertans and Albertans who pay the most taxes, uh, wind up subsidizing, uh, the choices or the situations of all those poor provinces. And that’s not fair to poor struggling wealthy Alberta.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right.
Jason Markusoff: Um, the- he’s proposed a bunch of other measures that would take away, uh, move Alberta out of the federal sphere of federal investments, including scrapping the RCMP and just going to an Alberta only police force, like the OPP or the, uh, uh, SRQ in Quebec.
He’s even talked about getting Al- pulling Alberta out of the Canada Pension Plan. And there could be a bunch of referendums [00:22:00] that really, uh, shift Albertans’ focus, uh, to some of the stuff that’s frustrated, uh, Conservatives in the summer and the spring, uh, to things that really galvanized them in the, in the fall.
Uh, the problem here becomes, okay, he’s doing this for the right wing of his party. Is he talking to the rest of Albertans? Is he talking, is he actually addressing the real needs of the provincial public? Um, Alberta’s economy, as I’m sure you know, is still struggling, uh, from the decline in oil, the oil economy. And that’s going to be a problem, uh, coming out of this recession or coming out of this pandemic, uh, as we hopefully start recovering in the fall. And how much of the public oxygen is going to be on those conservative base issues versus issues that the rest of the province actually cares about.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: It’ll be fascinating to watch him. Hopefully, uh, we’re all vaccinated and we don’t have to worry about COVID by then. Thank you, Jason.
Jason Markusoff: My pleasure.
[00:23:00] Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Jason Markusoff of Maclean’s. That was The Big Story, for more from us head to thebigstorypodcast.ca. Find us on Twitter at @TheBigStoryFPN. Find all of our podcasts on Twitter or on Instagram at @frequencypods. By the way, we hit 1000 followers on Instagram. Somebody just won a microphone. You can also email us thebigstorypodcast, that’s all one word, all lowercase, @rci.rogers.com [click here!]. And as always pick your favourite podcast player, look us up. Hit follow, hit subscribe, whatever they tell you to do. Leave a rating, leave a review. That wasn’t supposed to rhyme.
Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings, we’ll talk tomorrow.
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