Federal Conservative leader Erin O’Toole is in a tight spot.
On one hand, national polls have his party eking out a small lead over Justin Trudeau’s Liberals.
On the other, uh, Jason Kenney.
At this point, even Ontario’s Doug Ford is modestly less ridiculous than the beleaguered Alberta premier.
Just two months ago Alberta’s UCP government lifted nearly all pandemic restrictions, claiming that vaccines were a “game changer,” that Albertans needn’t worry about COVID-19 any longer, and that the province was in for its “best summer ever.” When asked what the Alberta government might do if a fourth wave were to hit the province, Kenney declared flatly that “we just don’t see that scenario.”
Mr. Kenney’s myopic and ideologically-driven confidence in his own ability to read the poultry entrails—all scientific evidence to the contrary be damned—has led to a surging and dangerous fourth wave, overwhelming hospitals, cancelling elective surgeries, and burning out healthcare workers.
Doubtless Mr. O’Toole was happy enough when Kenney disappeared on a four-week long two-week vacation at the moment the federal writ was dropped. The last thing he needed were any embarrassments from his shameless provincial cousins that would derail the Conservatives’ federal efforts.
On Wednesday, Mr. Kenney smirked his way back onto the Alberta political scene, hosting a marshmallowy Facebook Live event that featured the premier incoherently musing about what the Official Opposition might have done had it formed government in 2019, grinning and joking about his whereabouts for the past four weeks as Alberta entered yet another self-administered healthcare crisis, and knocking soft ball questions straight into the backstop.
Responding to a viewer question about the wisdom of taking a vacation when Alberta’s already besieged healthcare system was clearly on the ropes, Kenney noted that he needed to take some time to “recharge his batteries,” and that “it’s important that a person in my position doesn’t burn out.”
Never mind Alberta Health Services’ insistence that the province’s nurses forgo their own vacations and mandating them to work overtime hours to deal with an emerging healthcare worker staffing crisis. Never mind, too, that the Alberta government continues to demand wage rollbacks from nurses at the bargaining table even while it finalizes contracts with out-of-province nurses that pay 30 percent more than what Alberta nurses currently earn.
By Friday, the three big guns of Alberta’s pandemic response—Kenney, Health Minister Tyler Shandro, and Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw—held a cringe-worthy presser announcing weak measures completely out of line with the scale of the province’s current public health emergency, including what promises to be an entirely ineffective 10 pm limit on alcohol sales at Alberta bars and restaurants (unless you’re running a rodeo. Then it’s giddy-up!), impotent pleas that the unvaccinated refrain from gathering in groups of ten or more, and a rage-inducing plan to bribe anti-vaxxers with a $100 gift card if they get inoculated. And for the 70 percent of eligible Albertans who earlier and responsibly took two jabs for the good of the team? Bupkes.
None of this is a good look for ‘conservatism’ generally, and this is perhaps especially true given that it’s emanating right out of the supposed conservative heartland of Alberta. It’s worth recalling that back in May, Mr. O’Toole was busy praising Kenney for “doing yeoman’s service” in dealing with the pandemic’s third wave. At that time, Kenney was facing calls to resign from his own caucus. These days those calls have only grown louder, and Kenney’s popularity is lower than any premier in the country.
But to what degree will Kenney’s apparent personal political toxicity rub off on O’Toole?
It’s hard to say, but little reported is an across the board drop in Conservative Party of Canada support in all 34 federal ridings in the province as compared to the 2019 election, according to the latest polling figures.
Most Conservative Party of Canada candidates in Alberta, of course, will likely win their seats. Because Alberta.
And yet, of Alberta’s 33 Conservative seats won in the last federal election, fully 29 have suffered double-digit declines in support since 2019. And among the six ridings hovering around a 20 percentage point drop is Mr. Kenney’s old federal riding of Calgary-Midnapore.
Whatever the case, Kenney’s failure to implement even the most basic of measures required to deal effectively with the pandemic suggests a weak premier who’s lost control of government to the looniest of conservative loons in his caucus.
The question for Canadians is would a Prime Minister O’Toole be any different?
Eric Strikwerda teaches Canadian history at Athabasca University. He is the author of The Wages of Relief: Cities and the Unemployed in Prairie Canada, 1929-1939 (AU Press, 2013). At present he is working on a history of western Canada following Canada’s acquisition of the region in 1870.