But how much has the pandemic changed the UCP?
Kenney says COVID-19 has changed everything. How much will it change his United Conservatives?
Just over a year ago Jason Kenney swept to power in Alberta with a mandate to cut corporate taxes, kill the carbon tax, pull back public spending and create private-sector jobs.
That was the easy part. Now, after a summer and fall spent stripping the province of as much of the former NDP government as he could, Kenney said the COVID -19 pandemic and economic crisis have changed everything.
These are extraordinary times that forced him to spend money in ways he would rather avoid, he said during an interview in his office in the legislature in mid-may. He looks much like he did in March — wearing a light button-up shirt with sleeves rolled up and dark slacks — except when he turns to the side. Tufts of hair are growing over his ears.
“For fiscal conservatives like me we’re going to have to do things we’re not normally comfortable with to protect people’s financial security and their livelihoods and the broader Alberta economy,” he said.
Though, Kenney added, the province cannot go “infinitely into debt.” It does not have the fiscal capacity to save every business that might be in jeopardy or every household that’s under financial pressure.
“Throwing helicopter money out the window is not an economic strategy.”
What matters to him most is saving jobs.
“My obsession is not that guys wearing suits in office towers in Calgary can maintain a perfect balance sheet,” Kenney said.
The UCP government pushed a budget — rendered in many ways meaningless by the early-march crash in oil prices — through the assembly in a three-hour debate, along with an extra $500 million to health services to deal with the pandemic. This was March 17, the same day the government declared a public health emergency to fight COVID -19.
Days after proposals from the NDP, Kenney banned evictions until April 30, and for a limited time doled out relief to Albertans who were missing work because they were self-isolating — a program that cost $108 million but was criticized for letting thousands of Albertans fall through the gaps of federal income support.
By mid-may the government had committed some $13 billion to support employers and families as part of the COVID-19 response — mostly in the form of loans, bill deferrals and tax extensions. That total includes a direct $1.5 billion investment in the Keystone XL pipeline, and a $6-billion credit backstop for pipeline company TC Energy in 2021, even though Kenney has said the deal was six months in the making.
In a televised address in early April, Kenney warned that the projected budget deficit of $6.8 billion could balloon to as high as $20 billion.
That growing debt could be seen as a departure from the mandate on which Kenney was elected, but it is widely viewed as necessary to fight the pandemic and shelter Albertans from the worst of the economic downturn brought on by the ordered closure of nonessential businesses, the collapse in oil prices, and people staying home and spending less.
Many conservative voices in the province remain sympathetic to the premier’s handling of the crisis.
Matt Solberg, who worked in the office of Alberta’s opposition with the Wildrose party and is now a director at government-relations firm New West Public Affairs, said cracks are inevitable, since programs are at times being designed on the fly.
“People expect governments to move quickly but also move perfectly, and in a pandemic it’s not possible,” Solberg said.
Doug Horner, a-four term Progressive Conservative MLA and former finance minister, is also skeptical that Albertans will come down hard on Kenney.
“I think Albertans understand this is far beyond anything the premier — or anybody — thought was going to happen to us in 2020,” Horner said. “Unless you’re sitting around that table it’s very difficult to understand all of the things that you have to take into consideration when you’re trying to do things.”
Kenney’s supporters might also echo Ken Boessenkool, a past adviser to former prime minister Stephen Harper and other conservative leaders, who said that emergency spending is necessary but needs to be easily unwound. Support for oil and gas is far more important because that sector’s crisis will continue to dog the province well after the threat of the virus is gone, he said.
“When (Kenney) comes through this, it’s going to be more difficult for him, and (Saskatchewan Premier) Scott Moe, than it is for the premiers of Ontario and Quebec,” Boessenkool said.
WARMING UP TO OTTAWA
One peg of Kenney’s appeal to conservative voters that might have softened during the pandemic is his relentless criticism of the federal government’s policy toward the oil and gas sector and equalization.
Kenney convened the Fair Deal Panel late last year to gather ammo against a perceived political imbalance between the West and eastern provinces like Ontario and Quebec. In surveys and town halls, the panel looked at the possibilities of pulling Alberta out of the Canada Pension Plan and creating a provincial police force in an effort to establish more political autonomy for Alberta.
Now, after months of hostility, tensions between Alberta and the Justin Trudeau Liberals have largely been set aside as the two levels of government have banded together to support people and businesses during the COVID-19 and economic crises.
The Fair Deal panel submitted its report in early May, but it will not be released publicly until the worst of the pandemic is over.
“We’re not giving up on those things, but we should be prepared to acknowledge progress when and where we see it,” Kenney said. “They have stepped up in significant ways.”
He gave much of the credit to Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, who was born and raised in Alberta, for the newly constructive relationship with the federal government.
The ink is yet to dry on a truce over a long-standing methane emissions battle and federal cash is coming through a large business loan program that could help rescue oil and gas companies.
“The national government has the fiscal power to convene at critical times, and that’s what we’ve been seeking, to ensure a future for Canadian oil and gas,” he said.
But even that support for business became a political hot potato as many provinces waited for the federal government at the risk of looking idle.
For Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley, waiting on Justin Trudeau to do the heavy lifting isn’t good enough.
“If you look at actual cash on the barrel that comes from this (provincial) government, it’s actually pretty low,” Notley said.
With the number of daily COVID -19 cases rising throughout March and April, Kenney’s polling numbers, according to conventional political wisdom, should have jumped as leaders typically see a bump in popularity during a crisis.
A Thinkhq poll, released April 30, showed that Kenney had the approval of 59 per cent of Albertans, compared to 37 per cent who disapproved. That’s above Prime Minister Trudeau’s 50 per cent approval rating, and it’s comparable to the premier’s approval ratings in late 2019, but behind recent surges in the popularity of other provincial leaders. Quebec Premier François Legault has seen some approval ratings cracking 90 per cent.
Kenney’s approval numbers could have been higher but were held back by the government’s handling of the health portfolio, Thinkhq’s pollsters concluded. The government got a poor performance review for “ensuring a quality health-care system overall” — even though 72 per cent of those interviewed said they approved of how the provincial government has handled the COVID-19 crisis.
Cheryl Oates, once press secretary to former premier Notley, said people expect governments to put their agenda aside and put acute needs first.
“Politicians are so deeply defined by how they deal with crisis, both during the event and after the event, and this has been the case in Alberta for years,” Oates said.
In early April, the Alberta Medical Association filed a $250-million lawsuit against the provincial government for imposing a new funding framework in February — parts of which have been walked back, in some cases temporarily, during the pandemic. For example, the government extended an $81-million olive branch to rural doctors, some of whom said they were forced to withdraw obstetrics or emergency room services with funding changes. But that’s compared to the $2 billion over three years the government hoped to save.
Changes to doctors’ pay was part of the goal outlined in the fall and winter budgets to cut overall government spending by 2.8 per cent over four years. The UCP government also planned to reduce the public-sector workforce by 7.7 per cent.
The fallout from those budgets was already prompting school boards to spend emergency reserves and contemplate layoffs well before schools were temporarily closed. Then in March, $128 million in funding for educational assistants and support staff for schools was cut, and the government said it was redirecting it to fight the pandemic.
Zain Velji, a political strategist who has worked on left-wing political campaigns including for the provincial NDP, said while Kenney has been in relative lock-step with other provinces on his pandemic response, he has lost some points for leadership.
Sticking to the goals of restraining education and health funding while the public’s attention is on the COVID-19 crisis is one way Kenney has leveraged this moment for his own political agenda, Velji said.
“Has he used COVID-19 as cloud-cover to do other things as part of his agenda? Yes,” he said.
After the UCP passed its 2020 budget in March, with minimal debate, it also passed a bill, which is now being challenged in court, that gave ministers extra power to institute legislation during the public health emergency.
Back in December, with a slumping economy, some pollsters declared Albertan’s “honeymoon” with Kenney over, but he still claimed a majority approval rating.
“The rug was already starting to slip out from under Jason Kenney before the pandemic. … The growing job losses, the failure to create jobs, the disinterest in diversification — all those things were already starting to pile up,” Notley said.
Kenney might make some reversals, but he’s still devoted to small-government conservatism, she said.
“Even though it appears as though they are capitulating, it turns out they’re just trying to get money from another pot,” Notley said. “If that means pulling money away from autistic kids in schools — so be it,” the Opposition leader said, referring to funding cuts for educational assistants. “If it means reducing (health care) services in rural communities — so be it.”
Whether the ongoing row with doctors will translate into a real shift in political support for frontline health-care workers during and after the COVID -19 pandemic depends on how well voters choose to untangle the two issues.
Velji said that for many voters, it is possible.
“You can be sympathetic and extremely grateful to have dedicated front-line workers. You can also simultaneously think that doctors get paid too much,” he said.
Boessenkool agreed. “I think people will put those in separate buckets,” he said.
While there is a tremendous amount of sympathy and appreciation for front-line health-care workers, the looming recession will hit the service sector hardest, and layoffs, job losses and personal financial worry might eclipse those health issues.
“We’re thankful to the doctors and nurses, obviously — but a lot of people are hurting financially, and doctors are not,” Boessenkool said.
It may not move the political needle, and Albertans might become even more focused with their own bottom lines, but the fight with the doctors will just be amplified the longer the pandemic continues, Oates said.
“What (front-line health care workers) are telling me is that ‘today we are an essential service, but when this is all over, we’re the fat to trim in the eyes of the UCP,’ ” Oates said.
While Kenney continues to face fire for his handling of health policy, he seems willing to spend the political capital now to rein in spending in the long term.
If you look at actual cash on the barrel that comes from this (provincial) government, it’s actually pretty low.
‘TOUGH CHOICES AHEAD’
In a speech in the legislature on March 18, Kenney warned that the province was facing “a period of profound adversity unlike any we have since the 1930s.”
Restraint now could pay off later, said Horner, the former finance minister. “It’s not a bad thing to keep your powder a little bit dry at this point in time to be able to kick-start the economy when the time is right to do that,” he said.
With the devastating drop in oil prices, low global demand for Alberta’s bedrock export, and extra pressure from COVID-19, warning about a “great fiscal reckoning ” has become a common refrain for Kenney.
When asked what exactly that means, Kenney said: “Well, it means we are racking up a whack of debt.” The province needs to get through the crisis, but when that’s over, it’s going to have to have a debate over how to deal with it. “I’m not sugar-coating it, I’m just saying this so Albertans are aware there’s some tough choices ahead.”
The province’s economic recovery plan is still in the works under a special council led by economist Jack Mintz, and the plan is to release it in June, Kenney said.
“It’s a big, bold plan to really put the pedal to the metal on economic diversification, while doing everything we can to ensure a strong future for our energy industry,” he said.
Kenney was asked directly by Global News in early May if a sales tax was possible, long a taboo subject in Alberta, and he suggested it would be part of the debate to get finances under control. Other options could be deeper cuts or a combination of new taxes and cuts.
And while much of the conservative movement isn’t clamouring for a balanced budget any time soon, jobs will still be front-andcentre.
“The fact is, right now people care about their jobs, their livelihoods, their ability to work safely, and some of those things cost a lot of money,” Solberg said.
THREAT ON THE RIGHT
While the government is getting high approval on its pandemic response, attacks on Kenney’s leadership are coming not just from the left. He may have merged the old establishment Progressive Conservatives with the Wildrose party, but the premier still has to watch his right flank.
Derek Fildebrandt, a former Wildrose MLA, UCP member, Freedom Conservative Party founder and now publisher of the right-leaning online magazine the Western Standard, said while there is always a threat on the right, “it’s always a manageable threat if the mainstream Tory party of the day is willing to tack in that direction.”
A big part of containing that threat today will depend on what recommendations come out of the Fair Deal Panel. The government’s response will be a big indicator of how far Kenney is willing to go to keep those factions animated by western alienation on his side, Fildebrandt said.
“I think of it as a controlled fire.
They can be useful, but they can get out of your control very quickly if the wind blows the wrong way,” he said.
Fildebrandt said the government’s revenue projections in February were already unrealistic, and plans to save money were just an exercise in shuffling funds around in hopes it would be spent more efficiently.
“I think COVID-19 will be a blessing in disguise for political leaders across the spectrum to have some kind of cover for structural deficits that were there to begin with,” he said.
Back in the premier’s office, talking about the now-impossible goal of balancing the budget by 2023 with a reduction in spending of 2.8 per cent, Kenney released a big sigh.
“That’s what we were trying to do in our initial fiscal plan,” he said. “It’s reasonable for us to expect that the government sector should be able to find more efficient ways of operating.”
And while the NDP continues to call for more support for businesses struggling with reopening costs, the decision to keep businesses like restaurants and barbers closed for an extra 11 days in hard-hit Calgary and Brooks angered libertarians.
For Cory Morgan, a founding member of the Wildrose Party, and an early supporter of its merger with the Progressive Conservatives, it was the decision that pushed him out of the UCP tent.
“I am politically homeless,” he wrote in a blog post the day Kenney announced that Alberta’s relaunch would be staggered based on regional case numbers and hospitalizations.
“That was a profoundly tonedeaf move of getting all those owners ready — they were holding staff meetings, they were buying stock, they were putting up barriers, they were dancing to the tune of those slowly released regulations,” he said in an interview.
Kenney said he hears that anger, and he’s not dismissing it, but he’d rather be cautious when it comes to the relaunch.
“I’m not making arbitrary political decisions,” he said.
The UCP has three years to win back Morgan’s support, but he said he would be looking at developing a pro-business centre-right political alternative to the party.
Like Fildebrandt, he had misgivings about Kenney’s management of the deficit before COVID -19 entered the political picture — and he reads the fight over doctor pay as a clumsy mishandling, an illustration of Kenney’s lack of conviction in following through.
“We’re going to be going into austerity like we’ve never seen before. I want to see a strong, confident and competent government,” Morgan said.
The COVID-19 crisis is testing Jason Kenney. “For fiscal conservatives like me we’re going to have to do things we’re not normally comfortable with,” he says.
A sign on the front door of the James Joyce Irish Pub on Stephen Avenue Mall let customers know it was ready for reopening. The province’s economic-recovery plan is still in the works under a special council led by economist Jack Mintz, and the plan is to release it in June, says Premier Jason Kenney.