'Hawaii-gate' scandal, vaccines and labour unrest: a lookahead to Alberta politics in 2021

·7 min read

If Alberta's United Conservative government was hoping for a better year in 2021, those hopes were dashed in the final days of 2020 with the revelation that a cabinet minister had ignored public health directions on international travel and headed off on a Hawaiian holiday over Christmas.

Tracy Allard, the UCP MLA for Grande Prairie and minister of municipal affairs, apologized for the trip but did not resign nor was she fired by Premier Jason Kenney.

Over the next few days, Albertans learned another five UCP MLAs spent the holidays in sunny locales like Las Vegas, Mexico and Arizona.

Premier Jason Kenney's tepid response, on top of Allard's reasoning that a holiday trip to Hawaii was an annual family tradition, sparked outrage among COVID-weary Albertans who gave up travel and gatherings with loved ones over the holidays.

2020 saw Kenney's personal popularity plummet over his response to the COVID-19 pandemic — and the so-called "Hawaii-gate" scandal has ensured the political repercussions will continue into 2021.

CBC News is looking ahead to what we may see in Alberta politics this year, a challenging endeavour given the massive impact that COVID-19 has had on our daily lives.

"I think the only thing that one can safely predict is unpredictability, based on the last 12 months," NDP Opposition Leader Rachel Notley said in a year-end interview with CBC.

Here are some things Albertans can expect in 2021.

February budget

The budget, which must be tabled in February under Alberta law, is expected to make drastic cuts to government spending.

In November, the second-quarter fiscal update forecasted a $21.3 billion deficit at the end of the 2020-21 fiscal year. The debt is projected to be $97.4 billion as of March 31.

Although the problem is partly caused by a collapse in oil and gas prices, the government is focused on cutting spending as a way to return to balance.

Jason Franson/The Canadian Press
Jason Franson/The Canadian Press

Finance Minister Travis Toews told the legislature in November that Alberta is an "outlier" among Canadian provinces in per-capita spending and that he intends to end that discrepancy.

"In Budget 2021 I believe it will be important to lay out a plan that goes all the way to align our per capita spend with other provinces," he said.

Kenney spoke often in 2020 about a post-pandemic "fiscal reckoning."

"Our job now is protecting lives and livelihoods," Kenney said in August. "Our debt will go up very significantly and in the future we will, as a province, have to deal with that."

Lisa Young, a political scientist at the University of Calgary, wonders if the government will tackle more than just the expenditure side of the ledger with this budget.

With Kenney hitting the mid-point of his mandate in April, she said the 2021 budget could be Kenney's last chance to introduce a provincial sales tax or other user fees without facing a major political price in 2023.

"If ever there has been a moment to make that change, I think that the 2021 budget is that moment," Young said.

"I think we're going to see whether this government has matured and understands the realities of the situation that it finds itself in and the realities of where the Alberta economy is going, that we're not going to be saved by another resource boom."

Kenney has vowed not to introduce a PST unless it meets the approval of Albertans in a referendum.

Labour relations sour

Twelve months ago, it looked like Alberta was heading into a year of labour unrest. A protest with several thousand public sector workers outside the UCP's convention in December 2019 signalled that more trouble was on the way.

Then the pandemic forced a shutdown of most of the province in March, making protests impossible

However, issues remain. Many provincial workers — nurses, health-care aides and support staff — have been on the front lines of the pandemic, working long hours in trying conditions.

Kenney and other members of the government have said many are paid more than their counterparts in other provinces, and that wages need to be curbed to help manage the province's finances.

Talks with the United Nurses of Alberta and the AUPE have been fraught.

In November, the government resumed negotiations over a new contract for the Alberta Public Service by tabling an offer that would result in provincial public servants getting a four per cent wage rollback followed by three years of zero increases.

That, combined with the government's push to privatize some services and job losses expected in the February budget, could set the stage for a strike or lockout.

"We're concerned that it's going to be very, very difficult to get a negotiated settlement at the bargaining table," AUPE president Guy Smith said in an interview with CBC News.

"The parties are so far apart, the government and other employers are entrenched in their positions to cut jobs, and our job and our goal is to try and defend jobs."

Smith said while the union has a legal right to strike, the government could also legally lock out its own employees.

David Bajer/CBC
David Bajer/CBC

The other major labour dispute of 2020 was the breakdown in relations between the province and Alberta Medical Association after Health Minister Tyler Shandro unilaterally ended the master agreement with the province's doctors.

What followed was a bitter back-and-forth, with Shandro claiming doctors were overpaid and doctors responding that the dispute wasn't about money, it was about a lack of respect.

AMA president Dr. Paul Boucher said talks are still underway and he remains "cautiously optimistic" an agreement can be reached.

"There's no question the discussions that we're having are moving forward and I think that does modulate the tone on both sides," he said.

Vaccinations against COVID-19

The majority of Albertans who want the COVID-19 vaccine should have it by the fall. If the number of cases, deaths and hospitalizations finally ease, people will be watching how and if the Alberta economy will rebound.

Notley said she will be watching for the government to roll out an economic recovery plan that addresses the challenges and opportunities of the post-pandemic world.

"A recovery focused on job creation, that is focused on meaningful diversification, that is focused on full inclusion," she said. "So women are included, people of colour are included, Indigenous people are included, and that it rejects a race to the bottom as a means of growing our economy."

Toews has said he doesn't expect the economy to return to pre-pandemic levels until 2023. The government has abandoned its election promise to balance the budget by 2023 due to COVID-19 and last year's slump in oil prices.

New administration in the U.S.

Kenney said Alberta has invested $1.5 billion and plans to provide a $6-billion loan guarantee in the Keystone XL pipeline as a hedge against the Trans Mountain expansion being completed.

Unlike TMX, Keystone crosses an international border into the United States and is subject to decisions made in Washington, D.C.

Mike Segar/Reuters
Mike Segar/Reuters

President-elect Joe Biden made a campaign promise to kill Keystone XL.

Jennifer Granholm, Biden's pick for Energy secretary, is a former two-term Democratic governor of Michigan and a green energy advocate.

Both are signs Alberta's desires on the oil and gas front may not align with its southern neighbours.

Young, from the University of Calgary, said these changes will force the Alberta government to work more cordially with Ottawa.

"The federal government has a much better chance of gaining the ear of the Biden administration and moving this forward," she said. "And so to the extent that Alberta and Ottawa are not on the same page, it's going to be harmful, I think, to Alberta's interests."

Other items to watch in 2021

  • The Supreme Court is expected to issue a decision in 2021 on the constitutional challenges to the federal carbon tax launched by Saskatchewan, Alberta and Ontario.

  • Steve Allan, the commissioner looking into alleged foreign funding of environmental campaigns against Alberta oil and gas, is scheduled to submit his final report to Energy Minister Sonya Savage at the end of January.

  • Alberta is expected to hold a referendum removing the equalization formula from the Constitution that will be run in tandem with this fall's municipal elections.

  • A report from a government-appointed panel recommended Alberta move to no-fault vehicle insurance as a way to contain premiums. Alberta's current system allows people injured in vehicle collisions to sue for pain and suffering. A no-fault system would eliminate that option. The finance minister is planning to put the report out for public consultation.