Don Martin: Being Jason Kenney is the worst job in politics today
OTTAWA -- As former Alberta premier Ralph Klein used to say, the secret to being a successful politician is to figure out which way the parade is going and jump in front of it.
So spare some pity for current Premier Jason Kenney as he tries to straddle two marching bands of public opinion, which are on a nasty collision course over his handling of the pandemic.
In short, Kenney is failing spectacularly in every direction he’s turned – and the result has been the fastest infection surge anywhere in North America coupled with Canada’s loudest public revolt against overdue restrictions to curb the outbreak.
It’s a uniquely tricky business bordering on mission impossible to govern Alberta even in good times, where voters are happiest with the least amount of government in their lives.
As one rural MLA noted many years ago, “My folks think that painting a yellow stripe down the middle of the highway is too much government interference.”
But mix an oil industry meltdown with enterprise-killing lockdowns and hospitals near the breaking point and you create the perfect storm of angry opposition.
Closing down businesses, schools and rodeos has sparked outrage and defiance in rural areas, where COVID-19 is not spreading as quickly.
But by heeding the cries of the United Conservative Party’s rural base to go slow on restrictions, the Kenney government has infuriated cities where soaring third-wave infection rates are swamping intensive care units.
Kenney’s challenge has been complicated by an internal revolt of his own MLAs, some still smarting from the absorption of the Wild Rose Party to create the United Conservative Party, who have taken a very public stand against restrictions they deem excessive.
During a long news conference on Wednesday, a weary-eyed Kenney shrugged off the internal dissent as merely a welcome exercise in democratic debate.
Sorry, but attacking public health measures designed to save lives is not up for debate and Kenney really needs to send a no-nonsense signal this is not tolerated with a mutineer expulsion or two.
The point is that, in just the last few weeks, Premier Kenney has simultaneously infuriated the entire province, divided his own party and created the continent’s worst health care crisis. That’s quite the dubious accomplishment.
And it will get worse when the three weeks of enhanced restrictions end at the precise moment Kenney projects the hospital system will buckle if case counts continue to soar. In other words, the lockdown will be extended.
All this has, not surprisingly, cratered his party and personal popularity in the polls.
THQ pollster Marc Henry’s latest tracking has Kenney’s approval ratings in a freefall to levels rarely seen in true-blue Alberta amid clear signs of an NDP government on the comeback.
“If the current hastened decline in support for Kenney and his government continues on this trajectory through the summer and into the fall, his position as the leader of a party inching toward an election in 2023 could be untenable," Henry told me Wednesday.
There is personal blame for this mess to be shouldered by Kenney.
Whispers from informed sources say he mostly listens to himself or a small band of senior staff on pandemic and other policies to the exclusion of experts and his own MLAs.
And by flicking the switch on and off lockdowns, being slow to act when there should’ve been forceful action and tolerating backstabbing from his own side of the legislature, Kenney often gives the appearance of a hesitant gopher trapped on the TransCanada Highway.
Now, to be fair, credit Alberta for moving in the right direction on multiple pandemic fronts.
The new restrictions match most other hard-hit provinces and should, if the public respects them, reverse the spike.
The vaccination push in places like meatpacking plants make perfect, if not overdue, sense.
And being the first province to open up vaccination to anyone over the age of 12 beginning Monday is a bold step toward getting back to a new normal.
For most premiers, the pandemic has proven to be a soul-destroying exercise which was unimaginable when they applied for the job. There’s no precedent. There’s no playbook. And every hopeful sign of a way out gets sideswiped by the next wave.
But for the usually-cagey Jason Kenney, trying to juggle a rural base of support with an urban outbreak of infection has been particularly toxic.
The only parade he seems to be leading is straight into the jaws of electoral defeat.
That’s the bottom line.