“The work of democracy does not end in a crisis. The British House of Commons met every day during the blitz of the Luftwaffe on London.”
That was Alberta Premier Jason Kenney‘s response on April 11, 2020 that the Legislative Assembly should stop meeting in-person to avoid spreading COVID-19 to MLAs, staff and their families.
Unlike Parliament in Ottawa, other provincial legislatures, and most school boards across Alberta, our Legislature did not shift to online sessions when the pandemic began, instead continuing to meet in-person with a pre-arranged limited attendance by MLAs.
That Churchillian resolve to keep the Legislature in session abruptly disappeared on Sunday morning when Government House Leader Jason Nixon issued a press release announcing that the Legislative Assembly would be suspended for at least the next two weeks.
The press release states this is in response to the third wave of COVID-19, which has arrived in Alberta with a vengeance. And with almost 23,000 current active cases in the province, things look bleak.
The business of Assembly committees will continue through the traditional conference call system, but the regular business of the Assembly will stop instead of doing what many other Albertans in a similar situation have done for the past 14 months – go on Zoom.
Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley quickly disputed Nixon’s claims that the opposition was consulted, saying instead they were just told what was going to happen.
“The first item on the agenda for Monday must be an emergency debate on Jason Kenney’s failing pandemic response,” Notley said her own Sunday morning press release.
The surprise suspension of the in-person Spring session is probably a good idea, and a practice that should have been adopted a year ago.
Our legislators, including a growing group of UCP MLAs who are publicly critical of public health restrictions, spent last week in their constituencies could risk unknowingly bringing the virus back to the Legislature with them (it was revealed two weeks ago that staff in the Premier’s Office had tested positive for COVID-19).
But why now, 14 months after the pandemic started?
That’s where this feels like politics played into this last minute decision to lockdown the Legislature.
It is a big departure from Kenney’s chest puffing at the beginning of the pandemic, when he would frequently quote and evoke the memory of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who led Great Britain through the Second World War.
“The work of democracy does not end in a crisis. The British House of Commons met every day during the blitz of the Luftwaffe on London,” Kenney said as the pandemic began to spread last April.
Churchillian is not how most people would describe Kenney’s leadership since the pandemic began. His start-stop half-measures approach to COVID has proved ineffective at stopping the spread of the virus. It has also annoyed Albertans and made his United Conservative Party look not so united.
Suspending the Legislature means Kenney will not have to answer hard questions from the media and the NDP opposition about his government’s response to the third wave of the pandemic, paid sick leave for working Albertans, or the recently announced unpopular $90 annual fee to enter Kananaskis Country.
It also puts some physical distance between Kenney and his critics inside the UCP.
In normal times, it would make sense for the Premier to want MLAs in Edmonton where his staff could keep a watchful eye and hold a tight leash, but that doesn’t seem to make a difference anymore.
Kenney won’t have to answer tough questions about Airdrie-East MLA Angela Pitt, who recently walked back comments about vaccinations, and Cypress-Medicine Hat MLA Drew Barnes, who issued another public statement criticizing the government’s public health measures. It is starting to feel like Kenney’s critics in the UCP Caucus are driving the government’s agenda.
Probably meaning to channel Churchill, Kenney was all big talk last year when the UCP government passed laws clamping down on protesters who would block bridges, pipelines, or anything the cabinet deems as “critical infrastructure.”
He had no shortage of words to denounce protesters in Montreal who decapitated a statue of Sir John A. Macdonald.
He even launched a much-hyped public inquiry to investigate alleged enemies of Alberta’s oil industry.
But when it came to the 2,000 Albertans openly violating public health rules by attending the “No More Lockdowns Rodeo” in Bowden over the weekend, Kenney could only muster a string of strongly worded tweets.
Facing the biggest challenge of his premiership, Kenney is clearly out of his depth. While he may be a successful political tactician during election campaigns, he has consistently been unable to rise to the occasion as leader of a government during this pandemic crisis.
Two weeks ago, he said Alberta was on track to beat the COVID variants that are now sky-rocketing across the province. Last year, he downplayed COVID by comparing it to the flu. And just last month he repeatedly said that this summer would be Alberta’s best ever.
If he wore a crown, Kenney would be the King of Not Managing Expectations.
Maybe someone can ask him about it if he returns to the Legislature in two weeks?