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The Plight of Jason Kenney

Alberta premier Jason Kenney just announced a whole bunch of new restrictions for Albertans to fight COVID-19. It seems hospitals are overrun with COVID patients, elective surgeries are being canceled, and medical professionals are burning out.

In late June 2021, Mr. Kenney announced that COVID-19 was no longer a pandemic in Alberta. He deemed it as “endemic.” So, all those restrictions like quasi lockdowns and face masks were no longer necessary. Albertans were finally free to enjoy the summers as they have before 2019. To prove his point, Mr. Kenney then went on an extended summer vacation.

By June 2021, the world had proven time and place and time and place again that if a government relaxes the COVID restrictions, COVID infections go up. Put on restrictions—even without full compliance from the citizenry—COVID infections go down. There really isn’t much simpler math or science out there, and there was no reason to assume that Alberta would be exempt from these trends. For those of us Albertans who were watching the COVID happenings south of the border, it really is no surprise where Alberta is today.

Why did Mr. Kenney do the wrong thing? After all, he is university educated. He has 24 years of elected political experience behind him. If anyone should have been able to put all the political pieces together, it should have been him.

Maybe he did put the political pieces together.

Mr. Kenney’s voter base comes from two distinct demographics. The first is the moderate conservatives. This group would like less government: the lower taxes, fewer regulations, not too many social programs, and business subsidies. The second group is the radical conservatives. These ones are terribly suspicious of government. They want more freedom, no face masks, no vaccinations, lots of guns, and more praying to Jesus.

Until 2012, these two demographics were united under one party: the Progressive Conservatives. This party had run the province for 44 years, handily winning most of those elections. In 2012, this party elected a rather inept party leader. This leader caused enough political damage to split the Progressive Conservatives. The moderates kept to this party, but the radicals moved to a fringe party called The Wildrose Party. With the defections, this party became a serious contender in a short time. 

With two conservative parties and Alberta’s Westminster structure of government, the right-wing vote was split enough for Alberta’s socialist party—the New Democratic Party (NDP)—to come up with a majority government. The socialists got to run the most redneck Canadian province for four years. Go figure!

If the conservatives were to rule the Alberta roost again, the Progressive Conservatives and Wildrose needed to join together. Canada’s Westminster system kind of forces political coalitions to form before the election. With the political acumen of Mr. Kenney, the two parties did just that by forming the United Conservative Party of Alberta (UCP). In 2019, this new party handily defeated the New Democrats.

Then we were getting news of a new flu from China. Strange as it might sound, Mr. Kenney and the UCP were buying extra hospital supplies while the rest of North American political jurisdictions were putting their heads in the sand. Mr. Kenney had proven that he does have some vision to spot trouble in advance and take action.

But like political jurisdictions around the world, Alberta has its fair share of citizens who believe in a hands-off approach to handling this pandemic. Mr. Kenney had a choice to make. Should he listen to the moderate conservatives who would be more accepting of federal suggestions to fight the pandemic? Or should he listen to the radical Alberta conservatives? For 18 months, he worked the middle. While he followed some of the federal guidelines, he was the premier to do the least in that regard. In that way, he could appease both factions of his party.

Except the radical faction of the UCP thought Mr. Kenney’s minimalist stand on COVID was still too much. They started talking about rebuilding the Wildrose Party. Mr. Kenney had to pay attention and do some political analysis.

He needed both factions of his party to win the next election. The moderate right had nowhere else to park their voting block for they would not vote for the NDP socialists. But the radical right was threatening a new party. Hence, Mr. Kenney almost had no choice but to cater to the wishes and desires of the radical right. Therefore, all COVID restrictions were lifted in late June. As a politician trying to stay elected, we could say Mr. Kenney had made the right political call.

Here’s where the drama gets a little more interesting. Despite the lifting of COVID restrictions for the summer, the Wildrose Party has reformed and is holding meetings across Alberta. Whether the new incantation of the Wildrose Party will be strong enough to affect the next election remains to be seen. 

If Wildrose happens to get enough support for their new party, they risk the New Democrats coming back into power. The NDP will be much more proactive in COVID restrictions than the UCP. By being “right,” the Wildrose will actually make their “freedom” worse with stricter NDP COVID protocols. In other words, these Wildrose people are not that bright in terms of political intelligence.

In all fairness to Mr. Kenney, I really don’t know what was in his head. But I believe he is an intelligent man and an astute political player, fully aware of the forces around him. His “pandemic vs. endemic” reasoning for his June 2021 decision did not make any scientific sense to me. Until some other explanation comes along, I will hold to my hypothesis that he willfully mismanaged the COVID crisis in Alberta last June to keep the two factions of his party together.

Should we blame Mr. Kenney? Or should we blame the political system that forced Mr. Kenney into this kind of thinking?

Proportional Representation in Canada

Reforming Canada’s electoral structure is a somewhat common topic in Canadian political discourse. Our Westminster system has its flaws, especially when comparing popular vote to legislative strength for the parties.

There are many advocates for changing its Westminster electoral structure to proportional representation (PR). “This would be more democratic,” they claim.  But how would a PR system change the politics of Alberta? How would the COVID situation be handled with PR? Here is my conjecture.

For starters, the moderate conservatives and radical conservatives would not need each other as much. With PR, we should expect the UCP to divide into two parties, with both factions now free to do their own thing. Both parties would be able to send representatives to the Alberta legislature.

Likewise, the New Democrats would probably split as well. It would divide itself into responsible socialists and radical socialists. Again, each faction would be free to do its own thing. Each would be represented to the proportion of votes it received.

While the Liberal Party and the Green Party are smaller than any of the four new parties just mentioned, these two parties would be strong enough to pick up a few seats in Alberta’s legislature under PR, something they cannot do under Westminster. In other words, Alberta under PR would produce six viable political parties that voters could choose from.

To form government, a coalition would have to be constructed after the election. I expect the not-too-politically-bright Wildrose Party would not be in a coalition. They would still be making a lot of noise, but they would be nowhere near the levers of power to be setting COVID policy. If they were in a governing coalition, they would be played by more skillful politicians, with maybe a little finger on one lever. In essence, the Wildrose would be fairly neutered with PR, whereas they are a political force in Alberta’s Westminster.

So, I would say that a better COVID response would happen with the PR system in Alberta. So, it might seem logical that Alberta and the rest of Canada should change to that system. However, this system has been championed by PR advocates for years, and their efforts have gone nowhere. Changing any electoral structures anywhere in the world is so hard to accomplish.

If we are to spend time and energy into changing the system, should we not be working toward something better than PR? After all, the leaders of all the parties in PR systems will still be making decisions based on their re-election, sticking to the wants of their base rather than what’s best for society. Just like Mr. Kenney is doing today.

Tiered Democratic Governance

For my few loyal readers, you know my ulterior motive on Medium is to promote my alternative system of governance: Tiered Democratic Governance (TDG).

I have offered my conjecture on how proportional representation would change the nature of COVID politics in Alberta. I shall do the same for the TDG.

First, the TDG electoral jurisdictions will be much smaller than current political jurisdictions, maybe 200 people to hold a neighborhood election. It will be almost impossible for political parties to organize effective campaigns at that level.

Second, voters will be trained to vote for good character and capacity for governance. This is a vastly different criterion to base a vote than what we have today.

Third, neighbors will be electing fellow neighbors to the first tier of this democratic system. Neighbors will have a good idea who among themselves is more suitable for public office.

Fourth, decisions on COVID will come from higher tiers. These representatives in these tiers will have reached their position by being competent at the lower tiers and earning the trust and respect of those lower tiers. These representatives will not have their deliberations and decisions clouded by thoughts of re-election. They can focus on what they believe is best for the people they govern.

Fifth, in Alberta, there will be neighborhoods that have many radical conservative residents. They will likely elect one of their own into the first tier. But that is as far up as these neighbors can move their kind of politician. Any further political advancement will come from the trust and respect they have earned tier representatives who have worked with that individual. If such a person is displaying irrational thinking or an inability to collaborate or consult, there won’t be much more advancement for that individual. They will be stuck in the lower tiers, not really affecting the higher-tier, more rational response to COVID. A Wildrose mentality just wouldn’t rise that high.

I can already hear the criticism: “This TDG is a utopia that cannot work.” If the above explanation is all that there is to the TDG, I too would be suspicious. I have tried many times to explain the TDG in a brief format, and I always fail to sound convincing. If my loyal readers are waiting for a short convincing read, history says it is not going to happen.

Rather, I ask my readers to take a leap of faith. I invite you to a free read of my book “Tiered Democratic Governance.” It will take you about three hours to see how the various pieces of the TDG all fit together. From these three hours, you can then make a better judgment.

In Chapter 6, I talk about the process of how to peacefully move from western democracy to the TDG. While we are moving from HERE to THERE, the early TDG will require only about 10 hours a month from its early builders. That is the investment we will have to make to build the wiser, kinder democracy we all yearn for. Are you willing to pay this price?

January 2022 Addendum: The little spurt to revitalize the Wildrose was short-lived. But Mr. Kenny will be subject to a serious leadership review at the next UCP convention. The former Wildrose leader seems to be working towards usurping Mr. Kenney as leader of the UCP. More drama to follow. 

December 2023 Addendum: Jason Kenney was indeed ousted from the United Conservative Party of Alberta. The radical conservatives have political leverage in Alberta. 

Published on Medium 2021

COVID & Tiered Democratic Governance

Jason Hale, MLA