For Premier Jason Kenney, 2022 began much like 2021 ended: with public anger over his pandemic performance.
On Jan. 1, members of Alberta’s Asian community held two demonstrations – one on the front steps of the Legislature in Edmonton, the other at the government’s McDougall Centre in Calgary – to demand Kenney apologize.
This time Kenney was in trouble for a comment he had made to the Calgary Sun in a year-end interview where, while talking about COVID variants, he stuck his foot in his mouth. “What’s the next bat soup thing out of Wuhan?” he wondered, repeating a trope that has been used by racists to whip up anti-Chinese sentiments during the pandemic.
Kenney’s office initially tried to duck the controversy by saying “it is obviously ridiculous to suggest that these widely reported scientific theories are ‘racist’.”
Well, while it’s true scientists are still trying to figure out the origin of COVID-19, calling it a “bat soup thing” is not a “widely reported scientific theory.” It is the language used by simpletons and racists. Kenney is neither, but on the very first day of 2022, members of Alberta’s Chinese community weren’t so sure.
Protestors called Kenney’s language “irresponsible and toxic” and they were not satisfied by a classic Kenney-sian non-apology apology where he said, “I’m sorry if people felt offended by what I said.”
Welcome to the New Year, much like the Old Year where Kenney has become something of a trope himself, where his response to criticism is to deny, deflect or demonize – and sometimes all three.
He did it a year ago when members of his caucus went to vacation hotspots and he did it again last June when he and several cabinet ministers enjoyed a boozy dinner while ignoring social distancing rules. The most egregious example came after he lifted most pandemic restrictions on July 1 and promised Albertans the “Best Summer Ever” while inadvertently setting the province on a trajectory for a disastrous fourth wave.
In every case, Kenney would ignore public outrage while demonizing anyone he saw as an opponent, even medical experts who, during the “Best Summer Ever,” simply wanted the Alberta government to hand over its data and modelling to explain why it was moving so quickly to act as if the pandemic was over.
Even when reluctantly admitting he had made a mistake, Kenney’s apologies were usually half-hearted. On Sept. 15, just moments after admitting he had been “wrong” to treat COVID-19 as a controllable endemic during the summer and not an out-of-control pandemic, Kenney couldn’t contain his defiance: “I don’t apologize for the decision to relax public health restrictions in the summer.”
Kenney has talked often, even lectured his caucus members, on the importance of displaying humility. But it’s advice he seems to ignore himself.
It is arguably one of the reasons public opinion polls throughout 2021 indicated Kenney was the most disliked premier in the country, as viewed by his own citizens. And, according to disgruntled members of the UCP caucus, it is one of the reasons they are so unhappy with Kenney’s leadership.
And it is arguably why one of his most vocal opponents sees Kenney’s leadership to be a rotten, low-hanging piece of fruit ready to be plucked in 2022 if it doesn’t simply drop of its own accord.
Brian Jean, former leader of the Wildrose party who lost the United Conservative Party’s bitterly contested leadership race to Kenney in 2017, has returned to provincial politics with the stated goal of bringing down Kenney. In a plot twist worthy of the most melodramatic of soap operas, Jean is not just a candidate in the soon-to-be-called byelection in Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche, Jean is the UCP candidate, having won the party’s nomination in December. Not only that, Jean lives in the riding and has represented the area both as an MLA and Conservative MP.
Kenney is understandably not thrilled at the prospect of having Jean win the byelection and wheel himself inside the UCP caucus as a not-so-subtle Trojan horse to overturn Kenney’s leadership.
Kenney, never one to avoid pontificating on any issue, simply refuses to discuss Jean’s candidacy.
“My immediate focus is on this immediate threat to our health care system, not internal party politics,” said Kenney during a Dec. 28 news conference when asked to talk about Jean. “When you’re dealing with multiple crises, it’s a lot harder to lead and manage through those crises than to sit on the sidelines lobing criticism.”
Indeed. As Kenney knows from his own experience as Opposition leader when he relentlessly and simplistically blamed Alberta’s NDP government for all of the province’s ills, it is far easier to shoot torpedoes from the sidelines than steer the ship.
And now Kenney, desperately trying to manoeuvre during a fifth wave of the pandemic, is facing the prospect of having his ship boarded by political pirate Brian Jean intent on leading a mutiny.
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