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"Trust must be repaired": Kenney responds to travel scandal amid low poll rankings

"(The) buck stops with me," Kenney said
Jason Kenney
Premier Jason Kenney

Albertans are angry over the travel controversy that has dogged his caucus for the last week, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said on Thursday.

On Jan. 7, Kenney spoke with media for the first time since reprimanding jet-setting government officials last week. He said he knows Albertans are disgusted and frustrated that members of his caucus and staff travelled abroad over the holidays. 

"Trust has been broken and I accept that that trust must be repaired," Kenney said. 

The premier said he accepts the responsibility of not having a strong enough culture of discipline in the caucus, which made people think about traveling abroad at this time, adding the "buck stops with me."

The premier said he has now give clear direction to his caucus and staff, who hold significant positions of public trust, to have a higher standard of conduct moving forward. 

Kenney's comments are in response to six government members and Kenney's chief of staff travelling abroad over the holidays. On Jan. 1, the premier said they wouldn't face any consequences. However, after hearing from Albertans, the premier demoted those caught travelling or they resigned from their positions. 

On Monday, Kenney announced on his Facebook page that he accepted Minister of Municipal Affairs Tracy Allard’s resignation from cabinet and has asked his chief of staff Jamie Huckabay to step down as well, which he did. Huckabay had travelled to the United Kingdom, and Allard had vacationed in Hawaii. 

Kenney also accepted the resignations of MLAs Jeremy Nixon, Jason Stephan, Tanya Fir, Pat Rehn, and Tany Yao, relieving them of their legislature committee responsibilities. 

Allard, the MLA for Grande Prairie, apologized last week for travelling to Hawaii. The former minister left on Dec. 19 for the trip, which she called a long-standing family tradition. 

“We have been going to Hawaii for most of the past 17 years since our youngest child was born,” she said. 

Allard said she travelled with just her daughter and husband, but not her two sons, who are not part of her household. 

“We did make the decision to travel with my immediate household, which is my husband and my daughter,” she said. “We were confident that we were fully compliant with Alberta’s current health mandate.” 

Nixon, MLA for Calgary-Klein, also travelled to Hawaii. Rehn, MLA for Lesser Slave Lake, travelled to Mexico. Yao, MLA for Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo, also travelled to Mexico. Stephan, MLA for Red Deer-South, travelled to Arizona. Fir, MLA for Calgary-Peigan, travelled to Las Vegas. Huckabay, the premier’s chief of staff, travelled to the U.K. 

Minister of Energy Sonya Savage also travelled to a property she owns in British Columbia over the holidays for what her staff called “essential maintenance.” Savage was not included in the list of MLAs facing repercussions for their actions. 

The governments of Alberta and British Columbia have both asked people to avoid all non-essential travel during the pandemic. 

Matt Wolf, the premier’s executive director of issues management, said he travelled to Saskatchewan over the holidays to stay with his parents. Wolf was not included on the list of officials who lost their positions over decisions to travel. 

On Monday, Kenney said Albertans have every right to expect that people in positions of public trust be held to a higher standard of conduct during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Millions of Albertans have made real sacrifices over the past 10 months to help keep each other safe. They are right to be angry about people in positions of leadership vacationing outside of the country,” Kenney said in a Facebook post.

Transportation Minister Ric McIver will serve as interim Minister of Municipal Affairs, and Larry Kaumeyer, current principal secretary, will serve as interim chief of staff.

Kenney discourages travel

On Jan. 6, the Alberta premier spoke to Albertans during a Facebook Live event where he said the government needs to support safe travel during the pandemic. 

The next day, Kenney said he does not encourage people in the province to travel during the pandemic, although he said he thinks it is safe and good for the economy. 

The premier said he believes that travelling by air is safer than going to a grocery store, but is continuing to ask Albertans not to travel. 

“I’m not telling people to travel,” Kenney said. “The position of our government has been to facilitate safe travel because travel is happening and it’s best that when it happens, it be safe.”

The premier listed a slew of reasons travelling in an airplane is safe, including air filters, needing a negative COVID-19 test, temperature checks, symptom screenings, mask wearing, sanitization of airplanes and the rapid testing pilot project running out of the Calgary airport. 

"The point is in a world where travel must and will continue, I think that's a very strong set of layered protections to ensure safe travel," Kenney said. 

“What I oppose (is) we’ve had people from the very beginning who want to shut absolutely everything down, regardless of the broader costs to people’s livelihoods, their mental and emotional health, their ability to care for their families and the long-term economic consequences — and there are some people who wanted to shut travel down. I think they’ve been mistaken."

Since news broke of government officials travelling over the holidays, Kenney has spoken out several times about how travel is important to help keep airlines afloat, while still advising Albertans not to travel. 

Kenney said he criticized the federal government for not preventing travellers from COVID-19 hot spots from coming to Canada. He said he wants to see Alberta emulate the strategies of countries like Iceland and Austria who are encouraging safe travel. 

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, advises people to avoid non-essential travel. But if they choose to ignore that advice, they are asked to take extra precautions by looking at the Public Health Agency of Canada's advice on how to travel safely

Plummeting poll numbers

Only 27 per cent of Albertans said they are satisfied with Kenney's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in the province, according to a recent Ledger poll conducted during the travel scandal. 

Kenney and his UCP government have the lowest public satisfaction in the handling of the pandemic when compared to other provinces in the country. More than half of respondents in other provinces said they were satisfied with their government's handling of COVID-19. Alberta's response ranked 30 percentage points lower than the second lowest ranked,  

Kenney's fell 30 percentage points below the second ranked government, Ontario Premier Doug Ford's Progressive Conservative party, in which 57 per cent of respondents said they were satisfied. After the poll closed, Kenney accepted resignations from his staff and demoted several members of his caucus. 

While Kenney's low rankings were revealed during the travel controversy, the results are in line with previous polls around his handing of the pandemic. An earlier poll conducted between Dec. 4 and Dec. 20 ranked Alberta's satisfaction of Kenney's handling of the pandemic at 30 per cent, only slightly higher than it was during the travel scandal. 

During that time the government was facing criticism for not imposing tougher restrictions as COVID-19 cases in the province soared. 

Jennifer Henderson

About the Author: Jennifer Henderson

Jennifer Henderson is the editor of the St. Albert Gazette and has been with Great West Media since 2015
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