Hammer drops on vacationing Alberta politicos, including premier's chief of staff

·4 min read

EDMONTON — Premier Jason Kenney has cracked down on members of his government's caucus and on staff who travelled out of the country during the holidays after he told Albertans to stay home.

Political analysts say Kenney’s credibility and moral authority as a leader during the COVID-19 crisis remains profoundly damaged despite the move.

In a Facebook post Monday, Kenney said he had accepted the resignation of Municipal Affairs Minister Tracy Allard and had asked his chief of staff, Jamie Huckabay, to step down.

Other backbench members of his United Conservative caucus who travelled to sunnier climes despite government guidelines to avoid non-essential foreign travel were also stripped of responsibilities.

Jeremy Nixon is no longer parliamentary secretary for civil society and Jason Stephan is out at Treasury Board. Tanya Fir, Pat Rehn and Tany Yao lost their legislature committee responsibilities.

Kenney said he had listened to an angry public in recent days and acted.

“By travelling abroad over the holidays, these individuals demonstrated extremely poor judgment,” Kenney wrote.

“Albertans have every right to expect that people in positions of public trust be held to a higher standard of conduct during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Kenney had said at a news conference on New Year's Day that he would not sanction the travellers because what they were doing was within the rules, albeit unseemly given the government was asking Albertans to avoid travel and social gatherings.

Allard was part of Kenney’s COVID-19 pandemic steering committee.

She had been promoted to cabinet from the backbenches four months ago. She said last week that she went with her husband and daughter to Hawaii over Christmas as part of an annual family tradition that has spanned 17 years. She said in hindsight it was insensitive and that she regretted it.

The drumbeats of anger from the public — through letters, calls and social media posts — rose through the weekend. Allard was nicknamed “Aloha Allard.” Angry constituents redecorated the outside of her Grande Prairie constituency office with leis and other Hawaiian accents.

All politicians sanctioned have since expressed varying degrees of penitence on social media posts.

In the coming days, Kenney’s government has promised to revisit lockdown rules imposed in early December to try to stem the spread of COVID-19, including a ban on social gatherings. Alberta was a national leader in the first wave, but cases surged to dangerous levels in the fall. The numbers forced the government to double-bunk intensive care patients and to begin assembling a field tent hospital on the University of Alberta campus.

Add to that the rollout of vaccinations in Alberta has been slower than promised.

Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley said Kenney owes Albertans a better explanation than a social media post. She said the multiple vacations reflect a carefree ethos that starts with the premier.

"They really don't get how serious (COVID-19) is. They really don't get how significant the (health) measures need to be. And they don't get how it impacts real people," said Notley.

"If this premier thinks this written statement is all there is to it, then he's sorely misinformed."

Political scientists Duane Bratt and Jared Wesley, and Calgary-based pollster Janet Brown said Kenney’s challenge now is whether he has the moral authority and credibility to lead the health crisis.

“It (the announcement) is a bit of too little too late,” said Bratt, who is with Mount Royal University in Calgary.

“It illustrates the power of public opinion, because this isn't something (Kenney) wanted to do, and, in fact, argued against doing three days ago.”

Wesley, with the University of Alberta, said Kenney “applied the bandage, but is it actually going to stop the bleeding?”

“My greater worry is his ability to handle the pandemic. He’s lost a lot of credibility in the eyes of people across the political spectrum when it comes to speaking to public health orders.”

Brown added: “So many of (Kenney’s) own staff and his own government decided the directives from the chief medical officer of health didn’t apply to them, so in a strong sense he has lost the moral authority to lead on this file.

“And this is why it’s so concerning, because we’re in a critical stage when it comes to hospitalizations and ICUs.”

Transportation Minister Ric McIver will handle Allard’s portfolio on an interim basis.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 4, 2021.

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press