Don Martin: It's Ford versus Kenney in a race for the best pandemic playbook
OTTAWA -- During a pandemic, all politics is optics.
That’s why Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is being slammed as late to the lockdown game, even though his COVID-19 restrictions make sense as tough measures targeted on infection causes.
That’s why Ontario Premier Doug Ford is polling in the stratosphere for delivering a daily dose of sincere communications, even as the province’s auditor general whacks his government for slow, leaderless, ineffective health care planning for the second COVID-19 wave.
(And, as an aside, that’s why Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is getting thumbs-up for projecting earnest empathy while spending Canada into forever-deficits and dropping the ball on front-of-the-line vaccine procurement).
It’s all about the presentation, and that makes the behavior of these premiers instructive for politicians confronting an emergency which will define their electoral fortunes for years to come.
Let’s take Alberta first: Kenney tapped into the middle ground of voter public opinion on Tuesday, specifically that a sniper shot of prevention is better than shot-gunning the economy.
About 40 per cent of infections come from social or household gatherings, so he banned them and backed it up with enforcement fines.
Restaurants, bars and stores are relatively minor sources of infection so he limited customers and shortened operating hours.
And masking works, but making them mandatory inside big city stores makes more sense to him than in a small one-person rural grocery outlet.
But Kenney was two invisible weeks late in taking action he should’ve unleashed when restrictions were tightened on Nov. 12.
That created the image of a hesitant and reluctant leader ignoring one of the best public health bosses in the country -- yes, that’s you Dr. Deena Hinshaw -- only to cower out of sight while the wildfire spread.
Kenney also ideologically cautioned against tighter clampdowns, arguing there’s no asterisk over the Charter of Rights saying basic civil liberties are suspended if there’s a public health emergency.
But it’s tone-deaf to flag that legality with COVID case numbers and deaths in full throttle-up across his province.
In Kenney World, the right thing was done, the timing was wrong, the messaging was weak -- and voters have noticed disapprovingly.
Now consider Doug Ford, whose polling was rock bottom a year ago as he frittered around with new welcome-to-Ontario signs and Conservative-blue licence plates police couldn’t see at night.
The average Ontarian now thinks he’s doing extremely well, even though it’s allegedly a COVID-fighting mess behind the scenes.
The Ontario auditor general issued a scathing analysis of Ford’s failures on Wednesday.
She blasted slow testing, ineffective tracing, poor leadership, cumbersome planning and Ford’s failure to have the lead voice of public health on his co-ordinating task force.
In other words, just about every area of Ford’s responsibility has been substandard, she warned.
Ford angrily disputed every charge, of course, making a valid point that the auditor general is strictly a number-cruncher who seems to be playing doctor in diagnosing concerns beyond her responsibility.
Even so, he remained unapologetic at imposing a lockdown on family-run stores while big-box global giants get a pandemic pass for having a grocery section.
It’s an utterly unfair double-standard, especially during this make-or-break shopping season.
And yet Ford rides high in the polls, largely due to daily media appearances where he feels the pain of small business while offering effusive empathy for the sick and their families.
When confronted by acts of super-spreading defiance, Ford scolds like a frustrated father grounding teenagers for hanging out in the wrong crowd.
He’s become an unexpectedly strong and folksy communications force for the province, even delivering bad news in perfect pitch. And the polls show it.
The reality for all premiers struggling to find the correct pandemic response is that they must listen to public health officials, blend in economic realities and consider the impact on the general public’s mental health.
It is not an easy balance to strike when premiers are also confronted by their overarching failures in testing and tracing.
These two premiers, once united as leaders in The Resistance against federal intrusions into areas of provincial jurisdiction, are unveiling contrasting versions of their Great Resets.
Nobody’s sure which will work better -- the Kenney scalpel or the Ford sledgehammer.
Perhaps the best any premier can deliver now are confident leadership optics when confronting their no-win reality of confusion, conflicting advice and runaway deaths.
That's the bottom line.