OPINION | Kenney blows hot and cold on federal government in span of 3 days

·4 min read
OPINION | Kenney blows hot and cold on federal government in span of 3 days

This column is an opinion from Graham Thomson, an award-winning journalist who has covered Alberta politics for more than 30 years.

Buried amidst the ongoing COVID confusion and controversy this week in Alberta came a bit of unusual news: the UCP government and NDP opposition agreed on something.

It wasn't exactly a Kumbaya moment but the two battling political parties that have turned the legislature's daily question period into a form of trench warfare finally see eye-to-eye on an issue.

They're both unhappy with the announcement on Monday from federal Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland involving much-anticipated changes to the fiscal stabilization program that provides money to provinces experiencing a significant drop in revenue year-over-year.

Alberta, of course, has been experiencing chronic revenue drops year-over-year-over-year. Because of a series of bad years topped off by a COVID-19 pandemic, Alberta's revenue ride is less like a roller coaster and more like the Drop of Doom.

The fiscal stabilization program wasn't designed for that kind of multi-billion-dollar collapse in revenues.

In 2016, for example, the Alberta government under the NDP complained that it lost $6.5 billion in revenue because of low oil prices but only received $250 million from the stabilization program that was capped at $60 per provincial resident.

After forming government in 2019, the United Conservative Party took up the fight and this year demanded $4 billion instead of the $266 million offered. Not only that, the UCP wanted the higher stabilization payments to be retroactive to 2015.

On Monday, Freeland announced the cap is being hiked to $170 per capita, meaning the province is now entitled to receive $750 million this year. But the payments will not be retroactive.

"[I am] very disappointed that the caps weren't lifted entirely," said Finance Minister Travis Toews. "It really doesn't go far enough."

For her part, NDP Leader Rachel Notley sounded like a clone of Toews: "I would continue to advocate for the removal of the cap and I would also suggest that this should be retroactive to when Alberta deserved a fair fiscal stabilization formula in the first place."

But the fight to remove the cap completely has gone from difficult to impossible because of the pandemic.

WATCH | Alberta politicians unhappy with federal stabilization changes

This year, every province will probably be applying for aid under the stabilization program. Ottawa, already neck-deep in pandemic debt, would be swamped with billions of new claims under a sky's-the-limit fiscal stabilization program.

And, besides, premiers who had been supporting Jason Kenney's call for a capless program will likely be happy enough to receive almost triple the amount of money than was available under the old formula.

Change of heart

But Kenney's disappointment with Ottawa on Monday shifted to satisfaction on Wednesday.

He performed such a sudden change in direction he might need a neck brace for whiplash. But that's the kind loopy politics you get during a pandemic.

On Monday, the issue was money.

On Wednesday, it was a COVID-19 vaccine.

"We've been assured by the federal government that shipments will begin to arrive by Jan. 4 and continue to arrive in waves throughout the early part of next year," said Kenney, putting the kind of faith in the federal government apparently not shared by federal Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole.

Setting a firm timeline for a vaccine rollout is not particularly risky for Kenney. If the plan works, great. Albertans might be happy enough that Kenney sees his approval ratings start to rise after a year of steady decline. If the vaccines don't arrive on time, Kenney can blame Ottawa yet again for Alberta's problems.

Of course, a third scenario is Ottawa delivers the vaccine as promised but Alberta has trouble with the logistics of getting Albertans vaccinated.

To that end, Kenney has called in the military — sort of. He has appointed Paul Wynnyk, the deputy minister of municipal affairs and a former general in the Canadian Forces, to lead the province's vaccine task force.

In the meantime, as Alberta continues to lead the country in COVID cases, playing in the background is a plan to call on the federal government and Red Cross to set up emergency hospitals should the virus overwhelm our health-care system.

Kenney is still trying to spin a positive tale out of the distressing pandemic reality, still trusting that Albertans will take personal responsibility to flatten the curve, still insisting there is "light at the end of the tunnel."

But that light might just be a Red Cross truck coming with a field hospital to house Alberta's ever growing number of pandemic patients.