Curious eyes in Ontario couldn’t help but gaze west last week as Premier Jason Kenney declared Alberta on track for a “fully open” summer, as part of a relaunch plan more aggressive — and perhaps hopeful — than the one unveiled just days earlier 2,000 kilometres to the east.
It had been just three weeks since the western premier appeared before Albertans during a nine-minute televised address over dinner hour. Ominous dark drapes served as Kenney’s backdrop as he warned residents must “stop the spike” that had led to the highest Covid case rate in North America.
But last Wednesday, debuting a shiny blue and red “open for summer” placard, Kenney signalled bright days ahead, and soon — with all restrictions to potentially be lifted by late June, and a Calgary Stampede welcoming visitors at full capacity.
It wasn’t quite the “slow and measured” approach, partially reliant on second-dose vaccine rates, that Ontario Premier Doug Ford had vowed, with summer fairs and crowded stadiums simply not in the cards.
Political watchers and pundits say the contrast marked the latest strategic gulf between the Tory premiers since the COVID-19 pandemic took hold 15 months ago, which has seen the Ontario and Alberta leaders take divergent paths amid parallel nosedives in popularity.
“It’s so inexplicable,” Mount Royal University political scientist Lori Williams said of Kenney’s downfall. “I’ve actually been a bit surprised at how well Doug Ford did in the early days, but I chalked it up to his ability to connect with Ontarians. And Jason Kenney has never been able to do that.”
By early April, at the height of the pandemic’s third wave, three-quarters of Albertans felt Kenney’s handling of the pandemic was poor — the worst rating of any premier in the country — according to an Angus Reid Institute poll. Not far behind, though, 65 per cent of Ontarian respondents said the same of Ford.
Ford faced fewer ‘fault lines,’ better economy
Yet the two premiers have faced vastly different circumstances in their own backyards. While the majority of Ontarians supported the reintroduction of a stay-at-home order in mid-April, Kenney has reckoned with a more divided province — 45 per cent of constituents said measures in place prior to the latest wave of restrictions already went too far, while 42 per cent said they didn’t go far enough, according to Angus Reid.
“Kenney’s bellicose approach to things might have satisfied people on the far right of his party,” per Williams.
“In spite of the fact that a lot of people were angry about the lockdown, there didn’t seem to be the same sort of fault lines emerging and reinforcing in Ontario that there were in Alberta.”
Kenney has been forced to walk “a very tight line,” adds Carleton University political scientist Jonathan Malloy. In addition to polarized views on pandemic restrictions within his province, he also faces a “fairly strong Opposition NDP” led by ex-premier Rachel Notley, along with “grumbling” and “possible breakaway parties” to his right within the supposedly United Conservative Party.
Seventeen of his own MLAs endorsed a letter opposing Covid restrictions in April, and internal calls for his resignation led his caucus to expel two MLAs earlier this month.
Alberta’s “fragile economy,” which has been more susceptible to the fiscal pains associated with Covid shutdowns, has only exacerbated tensions.
“In Ontario, the economy’s overall not doing too bad. There’s less concern about strangling the Ontario economy in the way that Kenney, frankly, does have to consider,” says Malloy.
“[Kenney] has certainly not dug in on one side here. He is trying to straddle the line, even though both the left and right are unhappy with him a bit. He’s certainly enraged a lot of people.”
Malloy points to the pandemic’s second wave as a major fork in the road, whereby Ford and Kenney chose different paths. While Ford reacted by bringing in stringent measures in October to curb growing Covid case counts, Kenney “resisted” — until early December — closing indoor restaurant dining and implementing a mask mandate (the last province to do so).
“Ford was clearly again deferring to experts and talked a lot about how it’s important to react,” he says. “I think you can at least understand Kenney’s reaction. He did not have the political cover that Ford had, he had to play to different sides.”
‘Impossible to figure out what he stands for’: Kenney’s wonkish repute didn’t translate to pandemic management
For the two conservative leaders, the stark contrast in their strategic approaches goes deeper than those surface-level challenges.
Despite their commonalities — neither has hesitated to blame the federal government for its alleged failings during the pandemic and beyond — it’s clear to some that Ford, a former city councillor and businessman, and Kenney, the longtime senior federal cabinet minister in the Harper government with deep roots in conservative advocacy, are shaped by varying political philosophies.
“The puzzle is not that Doug Ford is being as brilliant as he is, the puzzle is why Jason Kenney, this reputed political strategist, why he’s doing so poorly,” says Williams, recalling missteps and “mixed messages” from Kenney, such as the time he referred to Covid as “influenza” last spring.
Just days before announcing Alberta’s most restrictive measures since Covid first took hold, he publicly questioned the effectiveness of lockdowns.
“It’s not surprising that many people in Alberta have resisted following these restrictions, because he himself has been so inconsistent and ambivalent about whether they are necessary or effective,” says Williams. “It’s been impossible to figure out what he stands for, other than trying to keep political support. He’s wound up angering just about everyone.”
It wasn’t that way, at least for Ford, when the novel coronavirus first began to spread across Canada’s most populous province.
In April of 2020, the Ontario premier blasted protesters rallying against Covid restrictions outside Queen’s Park as “a bunch of yahoos,” sending a clear signal at the time he stood “on the side of experts,” according to Malloy.
“He very quickly reacted and the government swung in fairly quickly with restrictions,” Malloy recalls of the Ford government’s initial response. “For someone who’s accused of ‘yahoo status’ themselves, that was really telling.”
Ford’s emotional reactivity reveals his lack of strategy
Angus Reid president Shachi Kurl describes a “renaissance” experienced by Ford in the early days of the pandemic, thanks to his willingness to be “genuinely emotional.” It’s a personal vulnerability he’s continued to display even as his popularity has waned, tearfully apologizing for missteps during a press conference last month.
“There was a premier dad-esque voice and tone from him. There was a period in time where when it comes to Premier Ford, Ontarians really did sort of rally around the fact that here was a guy who was doing his best and trying to rise to the occasion,” says Kurl.
“So much of politics is about tone. So much of politics is about saying the right thing that makes people feel OK in the moment or feel good in the moment. It’s not as though Jason Kenney hasn’t done that, but I can’t say that he was as present in taking that role.”
Kenney, at various points, has urged “personal responsibility” on the part of Albertans, leaving formal restrictions as a “last resort.” He decried limitations on charter-protected freedoms of speech and assembly, only to later restrict indoor and outdoor gathering sizes.
“Kenney, just because of the kind of person he is, doesn’t come across credibly when he’s expressing sympathy or support for people that are suffering,” says Williams. “He’s a policy wonk kind of guy … At least in the initial stages, Doug Ford seemed to understand where people were and feel their pain. They felt like he was sort of in it with them. That empathy, or the ability to convey a sense that he understood what people were going through, gave him a longer rope to deal with than Jason Kenney had.”
Ford, meanwhile, has often been too proactive, explains Malloy, adding the Ontario leader’s once popular inclination to react “emotionally to things” has ultimately been his downfall.
Last month, when Ford walked back powers granted to police to enforce public health rules and restrictions governing parks and playgrounds, it demonstrated that unlike Kenney, “he really has no strategy,” per Malloy.
“Ford was out in front of things there, but in a very incoherent way. He has no overarching principles to guide how the government’s reacting to the pandemic. He’s making it up as he goes along, and that includes sometimes overreacting,” Malloy says.
“He’s thinking very much on an individual basis, on a small business basis, and doesn’t really have an overall larger strategy because Doug Ford doesn’t really work that way.”
Both premiers find themselves in the back half of their terms. Ontario’s next election is one year away, and a Mainstreet Research poll earlier this month found Ford’s PCs are narrowly ahead of their rivals — with 26 per support, compared to the NDP and Liberals at 23 and 22 per cent, respectively.
The same polling firm found the Alberta NDP held a seven-point lead over the UCP last week, although Albertans won’t head to the polls until 2023.
“Ford is still in a very strong place, politically speaking. He’s still in a place where he could win an election if one were held tomorrow … That cannot be said for Jason Kenney,” says Kurl, adding the pandemic offers wide-ranging lessons for both of them, as well as political leaders across Canada regardless of partisan stripe.
“If you’re a politician, you’re never going to make everyone happy all of the time.”
Follow Politics Today’s editor-in-chief Sammy Hudes on Twitter @SammyHudes.