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‘Excruciating, overwhelming’: Jason Kenney reflects on leading Alberta through COVID in 2021


‘I have less difficulty in reconciling my conservative political principles than apparently some others have,’ Kenney said in an end-of-year interview

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EDMONTON — Alberta Premier Jason Kenney says he has had to make “excruciating, painful and overwhelming” decisions since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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“I’ve been in elected life since 1997 … so I’m not new to consequential, tough decisions, but in the current context, we’ve had to make truly life and death decisions that affect everybody, using virtually unprecedented interventions into the social, economic and personal lives of four-and-a-half million people,” Kenney said in an end-of-year interview. “It has been difficult, but that’s, I know, the case for everybody in a leadership position around the world over the past 20 months.”

Kenney, who was elected Alberta premier in 2019, has spent the majority of his tenure tackling the COVID-19 crisis — including a fourth wave in the fall of 2021 that brought the province’s health-care system to the brink of collapse.

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The pandemic has also exposed — within Kenney’s United Conservative Party and his political base — considerable fault lines regarding his government’s handling of the pandemic. The imposition of vaccine passports, and vaccination mandates for health-care workers, for example, have garnered considerable controversy. Meanwhile, the Opposition New Democrats have relentlessly attacked the government’s pandemic response, which critics say has been slipshod and inadequate.

Yet, heading into 2022, the pandemic has once again abated. Active case counts have dropped from record highs of more than 20,000 to around 4,000. And, while the future is uncertain — the Omicron variant could still dramatically change the outlook — Alberta’s economic forecasts are positive.

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“We are 3,000 jobs away from having completely repaired the damage to employment from the beginning of COVID,” said Kenney. “In the first quarter of 2022, we expect that Alberta’s GDP will finally have recovered to where it was, in nominal terms, in the fourth quarter of 2014, before the commodity price correction. So that’s astonishing.”

Kenney spoke to the National Post’s Tyler Dawson on Thursday about the Alberta economy, his handling of the pandemic, and how he has reconciled his conservative principles with the big-government decisions he has had to make over the past 20 months. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

Q: What has the last year been like for you?

A: Well, what’s that old Chinese curse? May you live in interesting times. It’s been a very interesting year. It’s been a rollercoaster, and a lot of unforeseen events and times of great stress.

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But at the end of 2021, I’m actually feeling more optimistic than I began the year, so I’m happy the province seems to have stabilized the COVID situation, and the economy is rocketing back, and I’m looking forward to 2022 with guarded optimism.

Q: What has it been like, having to make decisions around the pandemic, for the past year — or two?

A: Yeah. Excruciating. Painful and overwhelming sometimes.

I’ve been in elected life since 1997, so going on 25 years, I’ve been in some pretty high-pressure portfolios, including deploying Canadian troops as minister of defence. I had to make potentially life and death decisions as minister of immigration, so I’m not new to consequential, tough decisions, but in the current context, we’ve had to make truly life and death decisions that affect everybody, entire society, using virtually unprecedented interventions into the social, economic and personal lives of four-and-a-half million people.

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I don’t want to over-dramatize this because on a comparative basis, I would argue Alberta has been, on the public-health side, we haven’t faced the severity of the crisis of most jurisdictions in the developed world.

But it’s still been super tough. And there’s certainly many, many sleepless nights. Many days when I didn’t want to get out of bed and face these decisions, but that’s the nature of the job.

Q: Is there a moment that stands out as the most challenging?

A: One thing about COVID, it seems to have distorted our normal sense of time, at least for me. I have happy memories of things that were two years ago and they seem like a lifetime ago.

Let me just go right back, in the second week of March 2020, I met with our deputy ministers just to talk about the then-emerging crisis. And one of them had said to me, “There’s a great wave of human misery coming at us.”

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And it just resonated with me deeply. I’m a pretty stoic guy but I broke down a bit and got a bit emotional talking about what I saw coming.

Q: How have you reconciled your conservative principles with the need to make big-government decisions surrounding the pandemic?

A: I have less difficulty in reconciling my conservative political principles than apparently some others have, because my vision of conservatism is a view of ordered liberty, in a society where we have mutual obligations to one another and across the generations.

It is not a kind of extreme liberal view, of where radical personal autonomy is the only absolute value.

If that’s your view, then yeah, let ‘er rip would be your only COVID policy. But for me, it’s no secret that I, throughout my public life, have a strong pro-life conviction, and so taking tough but necessary decisions to avoid large-scale preventable deaths is, for me, a moral imperative.

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Q: Are there any decisions you regret?

A: I think it was an error for us to formally declare that we were moving from a pandemic to endemic management.

And, obviously, and I have to take responsibility for this. I and the government oversold the prospects of the need for no future restrictions and that we could be definitively open for good.

In my defence, in our defence, I’ve been very concerned about the morale of people. And the notion that people’s lives are going to be disrupted by this pretty long-term is, I think — would be intolerable for most people in terms of their mental health.

And so we overreached, clearly in terms of our tone and ambition at that time, and that I regret.

Q: If another wave comes, then what? People seem less keen to follow the rules, there’s vaccine skepticism. What do you do?

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A: There is a small but hardcore group of Albertans that are deeply COVID skeptical and anti-vax.

I don’t really think there’s any point trying to persuade some of those folks, some of whom have mixed in various conspiracy theories into all of this. Those folks seem to hate me as much as they hate Justin Trudeau.

But more broadly, we’ve just got to keep an eye on the willingness of the broad mainstream public to comply. And let’s be honest, when we face severe waves, it is voluntary actions by people that really bend the curve. The rules are a prompt; they’re guidelines; they’re a nudge. But we don’t have cops on every street corner like Australia has at various times.

So it really does depend on a widespread population volition and, and that’s what we’ve got to maintain, and maintaining stringent rules that the vast majority of people have stopped following doesn’t serve any useful purpose.

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Q: Obviously, Alberta has seen some good economic news. But we aren’t back to a boom time. What will it take to get there?

A: So I can tell you, there are many, many more big and exciting private-sector investments that are going to be greenlighted early in 2022.

I think by this time next year, the number one issue that we will be discussing in Alberta’s economy, is skill and labour shortages, but that’s what we’re hearing increasingly from businesses. That’s one of the few things that’s holding back some investors.

That will be, therefore, one of the centrepieces of our 2022 budget, which is a people strategy, doing everything we can to renew that key factor of Alberta’s modern economic growth, which was population growth, drawing newcomers here, etc.

So that’s going to be a centrepiece for us in 2022.

• Email: tdawson@postmedia.com | Twitter:

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