Kenney Government Ploughs Ahead with Political Change as Province Focuses on Pandemic Response

Faced with an unprecedented pandemic that is fundamentally challenging our society, the Alberta United Conservative government has chosen to break the systems that will be relied upon to get us through this challenge instead of buttressing them.

Chief Medical Officer Dr. Deena Hinshaw, accompanied by Premier Jason Kenney, gives an update on COVID-19 in Alberta.
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Chief Medical Officer Dr. Deena Hinshaw, accompanied by Premier Jason Kenney, gives an update on COVID-19 in Alberta.

The United Conservatives were elected on a mandate to deliver pipelines, jobs, an improved economy, and a balanced budget.

While controversial, changes to physician compensation, education spending, and to prop up oil and gas producers were largely expected, especially under what one might term “normal operating conditions.”

The UCP is not a typical government however, and you need only look at and contrast responses in other provinces to see that. Even in the midst of the greatest crisis our province has ever faced, rather than unifying and putting the health and wellness of our population first, they have seized an opportunity to drive forward an ideological agenda.

At the same time that Premier Kenney implored employers to do all they can to keep employees working, his government dumped 1% of the provincial work force, laying off educational assistants and support staff, while blaming the Chief Medical Officer of Health for deciding to shutter schools, and stating that Alberta was broke (an oft repeated mistruth over the past five years).

Effectively this transferred the liability of supporting these workers to the federal government, something we might call socialism, an ideology the Premier and his compatriots malign on the regular.

To add injury to insult, the broke government stepped forward later in the week with a $1.5 billion direct investment in the Keystone XL pipeline, and an additional $6 billion loan guarantee for the project.

When Ontario Premier Doug Ford was subsequently asked about whether or not he would be following Alberta’s lead, his response was:

“I gotta protect anyone who is not working, they have mortgages to pay, rent to pay, …I’m not comfortable with laying off provincial frontline people off.”

As Alberta healthcare workers have focused their efforts on the preparations, response, and medical care needed for the Covid-19 response, the government and Health Minister Shandro proceeded with unilateral changes to physician compensation that would see some practitioner’s income drop by as much as 30%,

Cuts to the government’s budget that were passed in spite of the onset of this crisis were set to trigger layoffs and reductions by attrition of up to 500 nurses on a full-time equivalent basis, according to the United Nurses of Alberta.

Contrast this with Quebec, where frontline healthcare workers were being offered a bump in pay for stepping up.

No one ‘is more deserving,’ says Quebec premier Francois Legault, raising wages of 300,000 health-care workers as #COVID-19 cases climb

While cutting physician compensation, Alberta Health launched a digital tele-health app ran by Telus and partner Babylon, where patients could have a virtual consultation with a physician, a service that would net a higher fee than Alberta doctors receive for a virtual or tele-health consultation. This, despite calls from Alberta physicians for the activation of an equivalent billing code as a means of keeping patients out of clinics for non-essential visits to help support physical distancing.

On top of these policy decisions being made that weaken and distract from the task at hand, the Minister found himself under fire for a perceived conflict of interest surrounding his wife who runs a private benefits provider company that he is a director of (though his shares were placed in a blind trust when he was elected and appointed to the role of Health Minister, and his relationship to this corporation has been cleared by the ethics commissioner).

This perceived conflict of interest was amplified after the Minister went to a physician neighbour’s home and berated him in front of his wife and children for having shared a meme about the Minister on Facebook. The Official Opposition NDP called for Minister Shandro’s resignation after this incident was reported in the media.

The Minister found himself facing further calls for his resignation after it came to light that he inappropriately contacted physicians on their personal unlisted cell phone numbers, which were obtained in conflict with privacy legislation, during after-hours to discuss their concerns they had attempted to raise with him at a public event where he had sequestered himself from physicians with private security.

At a time that trust between government and the healthcare apparatus is imperative, the Minister and government have ploughed forward with political changes in policy and funding that run the risk of significantly damaging the mutual respect needed to successfully navigate this crisis.

The Premier has all but commandeered the media updates that were previously being led by Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw – who in the early days of the pandemic was recognized nationally for her calming demeanour and candour. This is less an ideological decision but is still a stark contrast to other provinces that have allowed public health officials to take the lead on announcing statistics, modelling information, and public health directives. In Alberta, Jason Kenney has nearly shoved the beloved CMOH to the sidelines as he clamours for the devoted engagement her presence has generated.

Just today, the Premier spent nearly an hour attempting without much success to explain the Alberta Health modelling numbers to those tuning in to hear the technical details of the numbers that he’d shared at a high level the night before in his provincial address.

Globe and Mail Calgary Bureau report Carrie Tait said it best when she tweeted that Kenney had wrapped up his science fair presentation.

Disaster response is best executed when left to the experts, and politicians put the partisanship and opportunism to the side and focus on enabling the resources that public health officials need. Alberta has been fortunate thus far in that we have extremely capable public health officials leading the charge.

With all the stress and anxiety this situation is triggering for our population, it would be so nice to see the Premier drop the polemics and engage in some pragmatic pandemic politics.

It’s a weird world to live in when you look at Doug Ford as a model of decency and excellence, but these are indeed weird times my friends.

This post contains opinion and informed analysis.

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