It’s not as if they embraced and agreed to form a coalition government.
But on Wednesday afternoon, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and Opposition leader Rachel Notley did give each other a verbal hug.
It wasn’t the end of political hostilities but it was reassuring to see the two combatants — who have not downed weapons during the COVID-19 pandemic — give each other a standing ovation in the legislative assembly.
The armistice came after Kenney presented an economic relief package to help Albertans hard hit by the rapidly advancing public health emergency.
In concluding his speech, Kenney recalled how Albertans have faced adversity in the past.
“Now more than ever we need to relearn those memories, to redevelop a sense of social solidarity across regional, demographic, political and other lines,” said Kenney. “It is a time for us to the greatest extent possible to come together for one another.”
MLAs on both sides of the house stood and applauded.
After Notley responded with measured praise, UCP members, including Kenney, stood and applauded Notley.
It wasn’t so much a show of solidarity as an acknowledgement they can’t keep bashing each other about the head at a time when anxious Albertans look to their politicians for leadership and reassurance.
On Wednesday, they got some.
Kenney’s economic package includes $50 million for Albertans who are self-isolating but cannot work from home and who haven’t yet received help from the federal government. He gave the example of an Uber driver under pressure to go out and earn $100 to make ends meet.
They’ll be able to apply next week for $573 in provincial aid that will be deposited in their bank account within days.
As well, Albertans facing utility bills they can’t pay will see those charges deferred for three months. Corporate income taxes are suspended until the end of August. Student loan payments are deferred for six months and ATB will offer deferrals on mortgages, loans and lines of credit for six months.
Kenney says more help will be coming in the weeks ahead — and he took pains to say the pandemic will pose a threat to public health for two or three more months.
Kenney has never complained about being tired but he looks exhausted. The pressures on him and his government are enormous.
And they increase by the day.
The fiscal help announced the past few days by both the provincial and federal governments are not economic stimulus packages — they are aid packages.
Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and a fight between Russia and Saudi Arabia over oil production, the price of oil has plummeted. The scope of the problem is so great that governments have limited ability to respond. Many Albertans are finding themselves falling over a cliff.
The new government aid is not a helicopter coming to their rescue, or even a lifeline to pull them back up. This is a tree root they can cling to, to stop them falling further.
With those $573 aid cheques going out next week, Kenney is introducing a form of guaranteed income. Other jurisdictions either have done something like this or are thinking about it for the duration of the pandemic.
It makes you think that when it comes to dealing with a public emergency we’re all socialists at heart, even Kenney.
But Kenney has apparently realized somebody would make that connection. On Tuesday, he made a point of saying the $573 aid cheque “is not an economic measure but a public health measure.”
Notley may have stood to applaud Kenney’s aid package — but she didn’t stay on her feet for long.
She is still angry with Kenney for using the pandemic as an excuse to ram through his contentious new provincial budget Tuesday night.
“Contrary to the assertions of the finance minister, it was not necessary to pass the budget in order for the government of Alberta to continue funding necessary services,” said Notley, pointing out the government has other mechanisms to keep funding services. “Nonetheless, they did, and in so doing, they passed a health budget in particular that would have hurt Alberta’s health care pre-pandemic. Now, with the crisis we face I fear the cuts could make things worse.”
Another problem with the budget is it’s premised on oil at $58 per barrel. As Kenney himself pointed out Tuesday, the price has dropped to $21: “We’re in tough probably for the balance of 2020.”
The UCP government passed a budget that is already out of date.
The NDP opposition is not going to let Kenney or Albertans forget that.