EDMONTON — Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, responding to two of his United Conservative caucus members who are openly challenging his government’s COVID-19 economic lockdown rules, says it’s a matter of free speech.
Kenney also says Drew Barnes and Angela Pitt are representing their constituents.
But critics say the issue is undermining Kenney’s authority on health safety, and that Pitt and Barnes have to go.
“We, unlike some other parties, allow people to speak their minds and represent the views of their constituents,” Kenney said at a virtual news conference Wednesday.
“Whenever our caucus meets, the impact of COVID policies is a lively topic for discussion.
“But at the end of the day, I and the minister of health, the chief medical officer and our COVID cabinet committee are responsible for striking that right balance and ensuring we protect lives and livelihoods.”
Barnes, the UCP legislature member for Cypress-Medicine Hat, and Angela Pitt, the member for Airdrie and also the deputy speaker of the house and chair of committees, are speaking out against the province’s COVID-19 health restrictions.
They have also signed on to the End the Lockdowns national caucus, part of a group called Liberty Coalition Canada.
The group includes past and present federal, provincial and municipal politicians. Prominent members are Independent member of Parliament Derek Sloan, who was recently turfed from the federal Conservative Party caucus for, among other concerns, accepting a donation from a white supremacist, and People’s Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier.
Barnes has said Alberta should take a more regional approach to restrictions, as was done last year.
Pitt said she has been trying for months to get information out of the government to determine what evidence and rationale there is for the rules.
Kenney dismissed suggestions that his refusal to discipline the pair is undercutting his leadership or the government’s ability to enforce existing restrictions.
He said his government has not allowed COVID-19 to overwhelm the health system while keeping more of Alberta’s economy open compared with other jurisdictions.
“I think there is a misconception that supposedly Alberta has been in a lockdown. That simply isn’t true,” he said.
Opposition NDP health critic David Shepherd said Kenney is failing: “It’s really time for this premier to get his act together, to step up and show the leadership that Albertans deserve and remove (from caucus) MLAs that are spreading this kind of dangerous misinformation.”
Kenney finds himself navigating the shoals of discontent. His popularity poll numbers have been plunging amid government scandals and climbdowns on everything from parks policy to coal development to UCP members ignoring COVID-19 rules to vacation abroad in sun-soaked locales over Christmas.
Political scientist Duane Bratt said Kenney is trying to maintain caucus discipline while preventing malcontents from crossing the floor to rivals such as the fledgling Wildrose Independence Party.
Bratt, with Calgary’s Mount Royal University, said Barnes has been challenging Kenney publicly for a while and has even called for a referendum on Alberta separation. Pitt joining Barnes risks opening a floodgate if there are other discontented members in caucus, Bratt added.
He said Barnes had been a useful safety valve for Kenney, allowing Barnes to voice the frustrations of the discontented. But now, Bratt said, that safety valve is becoming a political albatross.
If Kenney keeps Barnes in caucus, Bratt said, the premier is now sheltering a separatist and a voluble critic of his own COVID-19 policies.
If he kicks Barnes out, said Bratt, Kenney risks Barnes joining a group like the Wildrose Independence Party, giving it representation in the legislature — with perhaps other dissidents following him across the aisle — while officially fracturing the governing majority.
“Initially, he viewed Barnes as an outlet … but over time Kenney has created a monster here,” said Bratt.
“Now he is trapped.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 10, 2021.
Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press