This column is an opinion from Graham Thomson, an award-winning journalist who has covered Alberta politics for more than 30 years. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.
It was a nothing burger — with extra word salad on the side.
Thursday’s news conference with Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro and Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw should have been a meaty update on how the provincial government is battling the devastating fourth wave of COVID-19.
Instead, Shandro and Hinshaw continued to starve Albertans of information, of honesty and of leadership.
When reporters asked Shandro repeatedly if he would consider introducing a government-mandated vaccine passport — as other provinces have done successfully to encourage people to get vaccinated and open up their economies — he stoked up the fog machine.
“People are expecting certainty, they want certainty now, they want us to commit to an answer to a particular question,” said Shandro as he disappeared into a verbal smog.
“Why can’t we say that the future is definitively 100 per cent going to be one way or the other? And I know that’s been a question that I’ve received many times over the last 18 months but it’s also a question that people throughout the world have had of their governments. They want to know, ‘You said this was going to happen this way and it didn’t,’ and it’s been because this is a pandemic that quickly changes and government responses have to quickly change and I know that’s frustrating because you want 100 per cent definitive answers to the questions.”
Don’t bet on Kenney admitting he was wrong
If you missed the news conference, consider yourself fortunate.
Shandro repeatedly refused to answer the question and in the aberrant world of politics, journalists are now convinced the government will in fact introduce some sort of government-mandated vaccine passport — but will call it something else.
That’s because Premier Jason Kenney doesn’t like to apologize or own up to a mistake or admit, for example, that Albertans did not just enjoy the “best summer ever.”
When Kenney announced in June that Alberta would be “open for good” after most pandemic restrictions would be lifted on July 1, he accused journalists and health experts of fear-mongering for warning of a fourth wave on the horizon as COVID’s delta variant gathered strength.
“I don’t think it’s responsible constantly to be spreading fear,” declared a dismissively punchy Kenney on June 18. “I’ve heard about CTV reports about how, you know, ‘We’re headed into the fourth wave’ and some person on Twitter with their projections that we’re going to be awash in delta cases forcing people into the hospitals.”
His issues manager and Twitter warrior, Matt Wolf, declared in a tweet: “The pandemic is ending. Accept it.”
Now that we’re in a fourth wave — that was predicted by a number of experts and therefore preventable — Kenney said last Friday during one of his rare appearances that he always knew there would be a fourth wave. This, of course, is classic Kenney, a politician so adept at gaslighting Albertans, it’s a wonder we can see anything through the murk.
Why Kenney may not care he’s out of step
But Kenney doesn’t seem to care what many Albertans think, particularly the majority who, according to recent opinion polls, support a government-approved vaccine passport. Kenney is focused on the vocal minority who hold anti-mask rallies, refuse to get vaccinated and who just this week forced the cancellation of a federal election forum in Innisfail after they refused to mask up inside the debate hall.
Rural Conservatives who bristle at restrictions are Kenney’s people, his supporters. They are represented by United Conservative MLAs who are pressuring Kenney to go easy on those who don’t like masks, vaccines or passports. They are the caucus members who staged a mini-revolt against Kenney in April after he introduced pandemic restrictions. Two of them were kicked out of caucus for criticizing Kenney publicly. They are the rock upon which his leadership and government are built. When it comes to taking action against COVID, they are the tail that is wagging the UCP dog.
One of them, Airdrie-Cochrane MLA Peter Guthrie, wrote an open letter this week criticizing Kenney’s renewed provincewide mask mandate and complaining the government adopted a “disparaging and accusatory tone” towards the unvaccinated.
“People refusing COVID-19 shots were painted as culpable for creating challenges to the health-care system,” wrote Guthrie. Well, yes, but that’s only because the unvaccinated are creating challenges to the health-care system by plugging up hospital beds and forcing the cancellation of surgeries.
But Kenney is wary if not outright fearful of MLAs like Guthrie. They are as much a threat to Kenney’s political health as COVID is to our public health. If he pushes too hard on restrictions or brings in a government-mandated vaccine passport, he’ll risk a fractured caucus with just 18 months to go until the next election as his popularity continues to be the lowest of any premier in Canada.
That’s why he has refused to implement policies that will further anger his rural base, especially after he assured them the pandemic was over and the province was “open for good.” Instead, he has pleaded with the unvaccinated, tempted them with million-dollar lottery prizes, and most recently tried to bribe them with a $100 reward for getting the vaccine.
But Alberta continues to have the lowest vaccination rate in the country and the highest number of COVID cases.
Peculiar and disturbing scenes
In Alberta, politics is winning over science.
Alberta politics is also creating some peculiar scenes these days where the NDP has emerged as the champion of free enterprise, where party Leader Rachel Notley has argued in favour of vaccine passports that she says would allow businesses to reopen fully. And she accuses Kenney of damaging businesses by forcing bars and restaurants to stop serving alcohol after 10 p.m.
One troubling sight was watching Hinshaw appear to march in lockstep with Kenney’s hands-off, libertarian, “personal responsibility” ideology that has been driving his COVID response for much of the pandemic and saw him rush to lift restrictions in July and announce the pandemic was now a manageable endemic — and thus create the conditions for the fourth wave to flood our health-care system.
Even when Hinshaw said she was postponing her intention to stop routine testing, tracing and isolation scheduled for Aug. 16, she made the announcement on Aug. 13, on the eve of the federal election, which made it appear she was pandering to Conservatives afraid a spike in Alberta’s pandemic numbers in September would hurt CPC Leader Erin O’Toole’s federal campaign.
“Clearly, the move to endemic was too early,” said Hinshaw of her mistaken push to lift restrictions over the summer. It was the most honest answer of Thursday’s news conference. But it was still just a verbal crumb at a time when Albertans deserve a smorgasbord of honesty and leadership, with a side order of political courage.
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