When it comes to Alberta’s COVID-19 response and the public’s reaction to it, I think it’s fair to say we have a problem.
The flames of outrage are burning on many fronts, and the premier poured more gas on the fire last Friday with the “cash for a jab” offer.
So what’s going on? What’s behind all the decisions and non-decisions?
Many observers have identified a partisan political angle.
However, Premier Jason Kenney’s political ideology is a much more powerful explanation for Alberta’s comparatively poor response to COVID-19.
Ideologies can often predict public policy. That has been the case with the Kenney government and its response to COVID-19. Look through Kenney’s lens, you see a pattern.
Problem is, Albertans are looking through a different lens.
A clear political ideology
All political parties, and politicians, come equipped with an ideology.
Rachel Notley has an ideology, as do Justin Trudeau and Erin O’Toole. Ideology is not a negative term — rather, it is a set of interrelated values or beliefs composed of attitudes toward various institutions and societal processes. It helps us understand where our politicians are coming from and what they might do.
Jason Kenney has been a political figure in Alberta and Ottawa for 30 years. Throughout this time he has articulated a clear political ideology through his words and actions.
As a conservative (the name is a good indicator), Kenney attempts to either preserve the status quo or revive certain aspects of the past.
His ideology sees the state as a promoter and protector of morality, social responsibility, personal responsibility, and traditional institutions and practices.
He advocates smaller government through decentralization of authority and maximizing individual freedom. Smaller government also extends to the economic realm by reducing social spending, cutting taxes, balancing budgets, deregulation and privatization.
But the ideology allows for government intervention in order to protect the “traditional” family through supporting religious institutions, parental rights and challenging certain abortion and LGBTQ+ rights.
Kenney has not hidden his political ideology but embraced and promoted it.
He has also surrounded himself with many like-minded individuals in cabinet, caucus, and political staff.
Albertans know what Kenney believes, and in 2019 they elected the UCP with a strong majority government. The strongest UCP supporters, in fact, wanted to punt the NDP for, in their view, imposing what some called Notley’s socialist ideology on Alberta. They wanted to replac her ideology with Kenney’s.
But there can come a problem with ideology when that of politicians no longer aligns with that of the population as a whole. When there is a fundamental disconnect between the government and the governed.
And that, I think, helps explain the problem so many Albertans have with the UCP government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis.
The first wave
What happens when political ideology confronts a once-in-a-century pandemic?
Initially, Kenney’s response was to downgrade his ideological principles and adopt a more pragmatic approach.
Big government, making big decisions. Collective action over individual liberties.
In his response to the first wave, starting in March 2020, Kenney declared a public emergency and placed restrictions on large gatherings (sporting events, concerts, restaurants, theatres, etc.) and shut down in-person classes in schools, post-secondaries, and child care facilities.
Employers were encouraged to have their employees work from home. A testing/tracing/isolation protocol was also put in effect. In an April 7, 2020, televised address, Kenney encouraged collective action and asked Albertans to act like buffalo, and, “herd closely together and face the storm head on, coming out of it strong and united.”
Kenney’s response to the first wave was effective. Compared to other provinces, Alberta saw fewer cases, hospitalizations, ICU admissions and deaths.
But some of the original ideological values still arose and caused problems — most notably the decision to continue with trying to reduce doctors’ compensation in the midst of a pandemic. This backfired and explained why Kenney, unlike other premiers, did not receive a COVID-19 bump in approval.
Still, this bending to the overwhelming needs of a pandemic worked and worked relatively well.
Unfortunately, Kenney’s response to the first wave — even though it was successful — was an outlier.
The next waves
Not only did he adopt a much more ideological approach to the second, third and fourth waves, but he apologized for some of the ideological actions that made the first wave less severe.
When the second wave started to arrive in Alberta in October 2020, the Kenney government initially refused to re-impose the previous COVID-19 restrictions.
Instead, Kenney emphasized personal responsibility and personal choice.
In a foreshadowing of his response to the fourth wave, Kenney was publicly absent for 10 days at the beginning of the second wave. When action was finally taken (well after other Canadian provinces), it was much less restrictive than other provinces and Alberta’s first wave response.
Even when Kenney announced the COVID restrictions, he went out of his way to explain that this went against his core values.
“[B]ehind every one of these restrictions lie crushed dreams and terrible adversity. Life savings, years of work, hopes and dreams that are suddenly undone due to no fault of brave Albertans who have taken the risk to start businesses, to create jobs.”
The response to the third wave in Spring 2021 was similar.
The lighter restrictions imposed during the third wave were removed much quicker to allow for the “best summer ever” to start on July 1.
The vaccination plan itself also revealed the ideological approach of the Kenney government.
Even as Kenney emphasized the critical importance of vaccines (those in hospitals and ICUs are overwhelmingly not vaccinated) and implemented a decentralized system to get shots into arms, he also maintained vaccines were an individual choice.
Vaccines would not be mandatory.
Decades-old provincial legislation was even repealed that previously allowed the government to require vaccines, even though that power had never been used.
So far, unlike most other provincial governments, the Kenney government has refuted the concept of a vaccine passport or to mandate vaccinations in schools, large gatherings and private businesses.
The problem with the approach?
It has not worked!
Alberta has been hit hard by the second, third and fourth waves.
In the fourth wave, which picked up steam in mid-August 2021, Alberta has seen the province hit with the highest number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths in the country, not just in per capita terms but in absolute terms.
As with the second wave, Kenney was silent for three weeks and no one else in the government could publicly speak.
When the response finally came on Sept. 3, a province-wide mask mandate was reintroduced (churches exempted) and a curfew for alcohol sales was established (rodeos exempted).
But the major policy response was to plead with unvaccinated Albertans to get the jab including, remarkably, an inducement of $100 to do so. A free market bribe rather than a vaccine passport. Completely in keeping with Kenney’s ideology.
Individual choice, not government mandate, remained the primary policy tool.
Another problem is that the pandemic, and the public outrage, reveals the ideological lens through which Jason Kenney views the province, and which he uses to create government policy, no longer reflects modern Alberta.
Where we are at
In a time of crisis — war, depression, natural disaster, health pandemic — an ideology that emphasizes the individual, the market and small government does not work.
The ideological approach to COVID-19 so far tries to appeal to the mythology of Alberta’s frontier past — of settlers taming a harsh environment and harnessing its natural resources through hard work, ingenuity, and free from the shackles of government.
This vision of ourselves has a long history in Alberta’s grassroots political movements of the United Farmers of Alberta in the 1920s, Social Credit in the 1930s, the Reform Party in the 1980s, Wildrose Party in the late 2000s/early 2010s, and the UCP today.
It may work well as a rhetorical flourish (few are those who would argue against empowering the individual) but it’s an ideology that presupposes everyone works toward some shared notion of the common good.
And, this common good, I think we have learned in the pandemic, is not a mutually agreed upon path.
Herein we find one of the great ideological dilemmas in our province.
A major disconnect
These political ideological notions Kenney has of ‘who we are’, and ‘how we act’, are outmoded. And, given the diversity of values held by individuals across the province, applying this flawed all-inclusive vision puts the government out of step with the people.
Evidence for this comes from many sources including the 2018, 2020, and 2021 Road Ahead Surveys conducted by Janet Brown for CBC Calgary that found that Albertans consistently placed themselves in the centre of the political spectrum.
The 2018 survey — pre-COVID — showed a large majority of Albertans did not want cuts to social programs and believed the government should take steps to reduce the gap between rich and poor, and men and women. Half of Albertans believed that there was a role for the government in job creation, not just private business.
In short, the survey data, I would argue, explains the current emotional eruptions over the government’s handling of COVID.
It reveals a major disconnect between Kenney’s political ideology of government staying small and out of sight and the values of a majority of Albertans.
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