by Shreya Viswanathan
Image: Canada Club Toronto / Flickr
Canada’s western province of Alberta had an enviable record of COVID-19 control until June 2021, but all this changed by early September. The province went from having a 7-day average COVID-19 case count of 63 to 20,000 in the span of three months. This rapid deterioration was due to Premier Jason Kenney’s decision to “open for the summer.” Kenney decided to speed ahead of other Canadian jurisdictions to remove COVID-related restrictions. This decision catered to the desires of the majority of Albertans, who were tired of restrictions and welcomed the notion of a “real summer” despite the looming threat of the Delta virus variant. If Kenney had decided to reopen Alberta cautiously, would this have angered Albertans? Or would they have questioned Kenney’s leadership regardless? Perhaps Alberta’s nearly catastrophic state is not a consequence of the premier’s flawed decision-making, but a reality of living in a democratic society.
In September 2021, as cases peaked in Alberta, the tone of news articles on Kenney went from “YIPPEE-KI-YAY” to “The Premier Has Failed to Do His Job.” Though Albertans were initially excited by the “open for the summer” plan, as COVID-19 cases rose, these feelings were quickly replaced by resentment. An interesting parallel may be drawn with Daniel Andrews’ COVID-19 management as the Premier of Victoria, Australia. In August 2021, Victoria’s case count rose to 52, a peak since their second wave in September 2020. Melbourne had been in lockdown for 200 days, and residents were wary of the state’s response to the pandemic. Andrews issued a statement reassuring citizens that, although unpopular, remaining in lockdown was the safer solution for the state: “We’ve made tough decisions. It’s not about being popular. It’s about getting this job done” (see article). Although cases were bound to rise — as fighting the Delta variant required nearly 80% of the population to be fully vaccinated, and Victoria only had 30% at the time — the lockdown helped the state maintain a 7-day average case count of 460 by late September. In contrast, Alberta had a 7-day average case count of 1,538 with a population of 4 million, compared to Victoria’s 6 million.
The Albertan leadership chose to remove restrictions while the Victorian leadership instituted a strict lockdown. The outcomes are clearly different in terms of death rates (at the end of September, Victoria had a 7-day average of 2 deaths, while Alberta had a 7-day average of 15), and hospitalization rates (325 people in Victoria versus 1,000 in Alberta). However, there is public disapproval of government actions in both jurisdictions. People were angry with Kenney for not enforcing restrictions, and Andrews was unpopular for continuing to enforce lockdowns.
This is the hallmark of a democratic society: to question, criticize, and find fault with the government’s handling of any situation, especially in crises. The government must do its job, sometimes aligned with public opinion and sometimes much opposed by it. In hindsight, it would seem that regardless of the decisions made by Kenney or Andrews, they would have faced criticism as a consequence of being leaders within democracies.
In a democratic society, leaders typically gratify their base voters to get elected. In 2019, Kenney was elected Premier of Alberta by promising to improve the healthcare system’s efficiency and boost economic growth by “cutting the red tape” (see full campaign). These ideas clearly appealed to voters, as he won 55.12% of the popular vote.
Unfortunately, many democratic leaders come into power focusing on re-election. Kenney’s reopening plans were aimed squarely at his voter base by fulfilling the promise of making the health care system more “efficient” and of boosting the local economy. Kenney’s plan was partially effective; at the time of Alberta’s reopening, he was praised for Alberta’s state of COVID-19 management. One news article wrote, “our province is now the only province in Canada that is fully open. This is truly the Alberta way. We do things first and we do things best. The grand reopening of Alberta is truly an accomplishment we can all be proud of.”
Evidently, this honeymoon phase did not last long. As of September 2021, Kenney was being roundly criticized on all sides: within his party, by the opposition, in public opinion polls, and by healthcare professionals (see “Job is in Danger”). Kenney now offers a cautionary tale for other provincial premiers. Many are calling for Kenney to resign. Gavin Newsome, Governor of California, can sympathize with Kenney’s plight. Newsome was criticized and nearly put through a recall election, for the high death rates in California (which had a 7-day average of 132 in mid-September).
The general public’s default solution is to express dissatisfaction by attempting to re-elect a new leader, but this democratic process may simply lead to a repeat of Kenney and Newsome’s situations. Thinking ahead to the next election date and giving people what they want is not the most effective way to govern; sometimes, difficult decisions must be made. This can be a challenging task. Unfortunately for our leaders, facing resentment from the public is just another aspect of being a democratic leader.
Our democratic system is flawed, especially by its majority-rule nature. Regardless of whether Kenney leant towards lifting restrictions or continuing a lockdown, there would likely have been displeasure and irritation. Ultimately, this is how our democratic process works; though flawed, it is “still the best system we have,” as Winston Churchill concluded. In a democracy, the voice of the public is heard, whether it be through elections or through protests. However, democracy may simply entail a trade-off between short-term gain and long-term improvement. One can argue whether or not Jason Kenney’s decision to “open for the summer” was flawed, but evidently, an argument is not needed to demonstrate that democracy is a system of many limitations.