A political maelstrom uniting Albertans on the right, left and centre in anger at Premier Jason Kenney and his UCP government erupted across the province on New Year’s Day. With news that members of his government had travelled internationally during the Christmas break – despite all COVID-19 prohibitions to the contrary – Premier Jason Kenney undertook a solo press conference asserting that he had not been clear about travel rules. Consequently, there would be no sanctions for those who had fled our wintery province for warmer destinations. Province-wide outrage followed, led in no small part by conservative voices.
Alberta has been at the centre of media attention as COVID-19 numbers grew, and the pandemic management was in question. Adding fuel to an inferno, Alberta’s elected officials and their senior staff travelled in numbers greater than most provinces combined. As that list came to include Minister of Municipal Affairs Tracy Allard, Parliamentary Secretary Jeremy Nixon, MLAs Tany Yao, Pat Rehn, Jason Stephan, Tanya Fir and the Premier’s Chief of Staff Jamie Huckabay, a tipping point was apparent.
Many moons back, some of us were senior staff in a Premier’s office during what we can refer to as a dumpster fire (you may remember the Sky Palace). Most of us who lived it remember how the senior team pulled together to support the Premier. Some of us even offered to be the sacrificial offering to quell the media thirst and protect the Premier. An important lesson we learned was that in times of intense attention keep your messaging factual, decisive, concise and timely.
That’s why so many public relations and government relations professionals around Alberta and the country are scratching their heads at what came out from Kenney last Thursday. By all accounts, Allard had been doing a very good job as Minister of Municipal Affairs in the few months she was in the job. Up until her decision to go to Hawaii for her traditional family Christmas, that is. Same can be said for the Premier’s Chief of Staff Jamie Huckabay, who has been with the Premier since day one.
But for each of these important cogs in the Kenney government machine, one wrong decision spelled the eventual end of their tenures in those positions. As it stands today, there’s a noticeable lack of senior advisors surrounding Kenney. Three senior members of his team have departed over the past four months: Katy Merrifield, Director of Communications; David Knight-Legg, Principal Advisor; Howard Anglin, Principal Secretary and now one more added to this list. His most trusted first-team has all left the Premier’s office. A leader’s core team is the group that helps prevent problems from happening in the first place, and then soundly fixing them if they do. This is not to say that their replacements are not qualified but they either did not equip Kenney with the best advice or that advice was ignored.
Only a day earlier, Ontario Premier Doug Ford, asked for the resignation of his Finance Minister, perhaps his most trusted Minister because of the very same type of decision so the precedent was set for Kenney. Instead, he chose to talk about the value of our tourism economy and safe travel. That point was a knife in the very hearts of the Albertans who elected Kenney, and not what anyone who sacrificed their traditional Christmases were prepared to accept.
When Kenney took the podium on Thursday the tone was defensive, and he put up a lot of justifications before eventually having to take the blame for members of his government not following the restrictions they helped to put in place for all Albertans. You do not often see Premiers, or heads of state make such declarations.
Some Albertans called Premier’s admission that he had failed to put in direct orders to legislators not to travel as noble. Most Albertans disagreed. Rarely in Alberta has there been a moment where the right, the centre and the left have been this in sync. A storm of negative opinion erupted in all provincial media outlets.
Those of us who have been lucky enough to have served in these types of jobs were left asking ourselves why? Who was advising the Premier to do this media availability, who helped to craft the messaging, and why was he not decisive in his actions? Four days later we see a Minister resign, his Chief of Staff resign, and others who travelled face sanctions of one kind or another; but why didn’t that action happen last week to try and put out the fire earlier.
Kenney clearly has a problem in his office. The kindling of this most recent dumpster fire was set in place months ago when the mass exodus of senior staff left his office for whatever their reasons and it seems as though Kenney governs from his own island in Edmonton. His go-forward challenge will be to find advisors he can trust to help navigate his way out of this and try and regain support from Albertans. He cannot fill his office with people who tell him what he wants to hear. Successful Premiers of days past take the opinions and advice of the senior staff and valued advisors. Premiers whom history fondly remembers gained insight from those outside of the dome and made decisions as to what was best for Alberta. Not all decisions will be popular, like locking down the province for the holiday season, but if we are “all in it together” then we must truly all be in it together.
Governing is a different monster than a traditional business, everyone is a stakeholder. Premier’s staff, executive council, and caucus must sing from the same song sheet; that most definitely did not happen here. The Premier now faces the biggest challenge of his administration: finding a team that can effectively help him ensure the morale and cohesion of his caucus and having a group of Ministers that he listens too, and in turn listen and respect him. That, and showing some public respect for Albertans are the only ways to turn this around if he chooses to. Government moves faster than real time with social media reducing a 24-hour news cycle to less than 24 minutes; the only chance you get to do the right thing is the first one. Doubling down on bad decisions in the effort to make them right is not a strategy, it can be a fatal wound. The Premier’s actions today will stop the bleeding, but whether they will heal the wound with Albertans is to be determined.
Authored by: Natalie Sigalet, Darren Cunningham, Tim Moro and Jessica Conlin