OPINION | Pandemic politics makes for pandemic pals, as Kenney and Trudeau discover

If politics makes for strange bedfellows, politics during a pandemic makes for shocking bedfellows

I give you Alberta Premier Kenney and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

After years of bickering, and outright hostility on the part of Kenney toward Trudeau, the two have become allies. Pandemic pals, if you will.

Kenney has gone from attacking Trudeau to praising him. This week, he even defended him.

During a news conference Thursday, I asked Kenney if he agreed with federal Conservatives that the Trudeau Liberals had tried to do an end-run around parliamentary democracy this week with the federal emergency aid bill.

In the original wording of the legislation introduced on Tuesday, the minority Liberal government wanted to give itself sweeping powers to raise taxes and spend unlimited amounts of money the next 21 months without Parliamentary oversight. The Conservatives deliberately held up passage of the bill until Liberals removed that section.

Normally, Kenney would be biting at the bit to attack Trudeau, especially over something as contentious as an apparent power grab by a man Kenney once dismissed as having the political depth of a finger bowl.

Leader of the Government in the House of Commons Pablo Rodriguez rises to ask for an extension of the sitting day in the House of Commons Parliament in the House of Commons Tuesday March 24, 2020 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

So, I asked him: had the Liberals tried to do an end run around Parliament?

Kenney paused for a few moments as if biting his tongue before responding.

“That certainly was the intention of those provisions,” he began. And then immediately shifted gears. “But I think, to be honest with you, I spoke to some senior members of the Trudeau government and they said that they were not fully aware that those powers were embedded in the original version of the bill in that, as soon as they realized that, they pulled them back.”

It is a remarkable statement that sounds as if it was written by a Liberal apologist. All the more remarkable because Kenney’s statement masks the fact the Liberals didn’t change the bill “as soon as they realized” there was a power grab hidden inside. They fought with the Conservatives for hours before changing the bill that was eventually passed early Wednesday morning.

Kenney is on the same page as Trudeau these days — not just because he wants massive financial aid from Trudeau —but because he’s in the same boat as Trudeau. They are both political leaders facing an unprecedented crisis in modern times.

The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing governments to not only re-examine their priorities but perhaps even toss them aside. Kenney, a true-blue conservative who believes in small government, free enterprise and a balanced budget might well become Alberta’s biggest-borrowing and biggest-spending premier in Alberta history thanks to the pressures of the pandemic.

“The public should be patient with political leaders of all levels and across the political spectrum,” he said by way of a plea.

At the Alberta legislature last week, Premier Jason Kenney announced funding to house homeless in COVID-19 pandemic. (Alberta Legislature)

He said something else of note when talking about the resolve of the opposition Conservatives who refused to back down this week in the face of Liberal pressure to pass an urgently needed aid package for Canadians.

“I think that’s a good example of how Parliament should function,” said Kenney. “Which is to say the Opposition closely studied the bill, they saw some truly extraordinary powers, they brought that to the public’s attention. The government realized it was an overstep and quickly corrected course. So, I think that’s a good example of parliamentary democracy working well.”

It is a quote worth framing for Kenney’s United Conservative supporters the next time they feel like criticizing Alberta’s NDP Opposition as it continues to hold the Kenney government to account during the pandemic.

Opposition role

In the past few weeks, the NDP has pressed the government over a litany of issues including compensation for physicians, privacy concerns for people using the online Babylon health app, child-care facilities in danger of closing permanently, and eviction fears of unemployed renters.

That’s not to forget the NDP’s outrage at the Kenney government for using its majority to ram through the provincial budget last week that, among other things, will lead to public sector layoffs and job reductions.

The NDP’s continuing badgering of the government, along with pressure from physicians, arguably forced the government to scrap its controversial plans to change how doctors are compensated by the province’s health care system.

The Opposition has a crucial role to play during a public emergency: to hold the government to account; to provide alternative ideas; and, in the words of Kenney, to help the government correct its course when it goes astray.

Trudeau supporters should keep this in mind when they criticize the federal Conservatives for delaying passage of this week’s emergency aid package.

And Kenney supporters should keep it in mind when they rush to accuse Notley of partisanship and grandstanding when she holds news conferences to poke and prod the UCP government.

Kenney said he understands the importance of the opposition which is why the legislature is on standby to sit at a moment’s notice to pass any legislation necessary to deal with the pandemic.

We are facing a crisis and perhaps we should be patient with our political leaders but that doesn’t mean our opposition politicians, whether federal or provincial, should stop opposing.

As Kenney says, politicians holding governments to account is “a good example of parliamentary democracy working well.”

This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor’s blog and our FAQ.

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