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.
As federal Conservatives cut through the clutter of the election to figure out why they lost, they’ll be pointing their knives in the direction of embattled Alberta Premier Jason Kenney.
They are upset, to say the least, with Kenney for so mishandling the fourth wave of the pandemic that he became an issue in the final week of the election campaign as he chaotically tried to prevent Alberta’s health care system from collapsing under the weight of COVID-19 cases.
By declaring yet another province-wide public health emergency and by finally being forced to introduce a vaccine passport (that he disguised as a “restrictions exemption program”), Kenney allowed Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau to attack him and by extension Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, who had applauded the Alberta premier’s pandemic response just days prior.
Of course, O’Toole really had only himself to blame for praising Kenney while COVID-19 began battering Alberta’s health care system. In the end, O’Toole clumsily did his best to avoid journalists’ questions on the issue, going so far as not even mentioning Kenney by name.
The campaign might have had a litany of issues, including Afghanistan, gun control and daycare, but the pandemic trumped them all, and Kenney became the poster boy of how to let COVID-19 overwhelm your health care system.
It’s not fair to blame Kenney for O’Toole’s loss, but federal Conservatives who are eager to save O’Toole’s hide post-election aren’t going to go easy on the Alberta premier.
Even though the national seat results for the Liberals and Conservatives pretty much echo those of the 2019 election, the Alberta results are an ominous sign for the provincial Conservatives.
The NDP held on to Edmonton Strathcona, and by early Tuesday, NDP candidate Blake Desjarlais was declared the winner over Conservative incumbent Kerry Diotte in Edmonton Griesbach.
George Chahal won for the Liberals in Calgary Skyview, while in Edmonton Centre, Conservative incumbent James Cumming was in a see-saw battle against Liberal Randy Boissonnault.
This is bad news for the federal Conservatives but it is a disaster for Kenney. It would seem the public’s anger at the Alberta premier has bled into the federal arena.
Normally, federal Liberal candidates in Alberta only have a chance to win a seat when their party is clearly headed toward a majority government — as it was in 2015 when Liberals won four seats.
When their party is headed to defeat or a minority status, they lose those seats, as they did in 2019.
Now, here they are on the cusp of winning two Alberta seats while their party only managed to eke out another minority government.
And the NDP, always ecstatic to win even one seat in Alberta, now has two.
You could call that the Rachel Notley effect, where the public’s approval of the provincial NDP leader’s behaviour during the pandemic has spilled over into the federal scene.
If Kenney was treading water yesterday, he is a drowning man today.
Not only is he the least popular premier in the country, with a fractious caucus on the edge of revolt and a party that is falling behind the NDP in fundraising, he will be the target of federal Conservatives looking for somewhere to point fingers.
This has happened before in Alberta politics.
During the federal election in June 2004, Premier Ralph Klein’s very vocal plans to shake up Alberta’s health care system created a massive headache for Stephen Harper’s Conservatives.
Klein had boasted of “bold and courageous” reforms that would challenge – if not outright break – the Canada Health Act.
Liberal leader Paul Martin seized on Klein’s rhetoric to attack Harper and it worked. Conservatives blamed Klein for allowing the Liberals to hang on to power with a minority government.
Klein’s popularity, already beginning to weaken, began a free fall. He managed to win the Alberta election in November 2004 but lost 11 seats and 200,000 votes compared to the 2001 election.
Klein’s days were numbered and, after receiving a humiliating 55 per cent support in a leadership review in March of 2006, he had no choice but to retire earlier than planned.
Kenney, on the other hand, is not supposed to face a leadership review until late next year.
However, there is now a move afoot by some UCP constituency associations to force a review early next year to give the party time to choose a new leader before the next election scheduled for the spring of 2023.
The knives are out for Kenney and they’re coming from all directions.