Is there still anger over United Conservative MLAs and the premier’s chief of staff flying to foreign (usually warm and sunny) locations after advising everyone else in Alberta to restrict travel, family visits, and most other standard aspects of life?
That was so early January. Before the month was out, plenty of distractions popped up: coal mining policy; the fate of the Keystone XL pipeline; a continued rather sneaky effort to give the Alberta Investment Management Corp. (AIMCo) more power over the Teachers’ Retirement Fund and other public-sector pension plans; expulsion from the UCP caucus of an MLA who paid scant attention to his constituency. It’s remarkable how many controversies the government stepped into within a couple of weeks.
However, fallout from the travel uproar helped explain why other controversies developed.
Government displays of contrition included the usual symbolic victims. The municipal affairs minister was booted from cabinet. The chief of staff lost his job. His loss was more significant because he was closer to Premier Jason Kenney. The premier left the impression that he doesn’t keep track of travel by MLAs and his close staff. It’s beyond belief that the party whip at a minimum does not do so.
We’ll see whether the job losses are permanent or just temporary sentences to the political hall of shame.
More intriguing was the language used to try to mollify an outraged public.
Health Minister Tyler Shandro said the UCP had campaigned on “hard work and humility” in the 2019 election.
Kenney said the government had learned the result of unacceptable behaviour: “And we have to rebuild a culture of discipline and of humility.”
Do tell. They campaigned on humility and want to instill a culture of humility as one of their guiding principles?
A look back suggests the opposite. The UCP campaigned on the theme that they would be much better managers of the economy than the New Democrats. That notion was built not on any real track record, but on a widely shared assumption that the “conservatives” would automatically have smarter managers in their ranks.
Any party uses the advantages it has. Problems emerge when it starts believing its own sales pitch.
The UCP isn’t alone in this. The legislature is a hard place to be humble. It’s easy for members of all parties, but especially cabinet ministers and government MLAs, to think they must be there because they’re pretty smart. Besides, a limit on humility is almost part of the job description; any leader has to feel and to demonstrate confidence. And what’s the point of having power if you don’t use it?
But the temptations loom very large in a party that sees itself as the natural home of common sense and of those Albertans who know how business is really done. That certainty is reinforced by the knowledge that Alberta voters have been more than willing to support a single party in government for decades on end, often based on the assumption that no other party has more than one or two people you’d trust to run a hot dog stand.
With that mental framework, it’s easy to make a billion-dollar bet on construction of the Keystone pipeline.
It’s easy to complain that the former government refused to consult before making big decisions, then turn around and make important and questionable secret decisions on pension management and on coal mining in the Rocky Mountain foothills.
It’s easy to dump a cabinet minister who said she travelled during the pandemic because her family had a 17-year “tradition” of going to Hawaii during the Christmas holidays. It’s fairly easy to retreat on a plan to sell provincial parks as a way of demonstrating regard for public opinion.
But it’s never easy to stop believing in one’s own superiority or one’s right to wield power, no more than it’s easy to stop after one peanut or one half-glass of wine.