Two Canadian premiers, Manitoba’s Brian Pallister and Alberta’s Jason Kenney, are having a tough time in this pandemic season. Both provincial leaders have received poor marks from their people in public opinion surveys.
Other premiers have fared much better. Blaine Higgs in New Brunswick won re-election Sept. 14 on the strength of his pandemic management. British Columbia’s John Horgan and Saskatchewan’s Scott Moe, encouraged by the New Brunswick result, won re-election in late October before the virus experience turned alarming.
Quebec’s François Legault, whose anti-COVID-19 measures have achieved less than any other Canadian province, seems to be riding high in local popularity. Ontario’s Doug Ford, whose pandemic control measures have not worked well, has been losing favour lately.
Mr. Pallister believed in early December that his people thought ill of him because he was doing an excellent job, taking the tough but unpopular decisions that kept the public safe. In fact, he allowed COVID-19 to spread rapidly in October and early November. Severe restrictions imposed in November curtailed spread of the virus.
Both Mr. Pallister and Mr. Kenney aroused public anger after Christmas when it emerged that their close colleagues had defied public-health warnings to stay home. Both premiers immediately forgave their colleagues.
Mr. Pallister urged compassion toward David McLaughlin, Clerk of the Executive Council, because Mr. McLaughlin had taken care to avoid infection when he spent two weeks with his family in Ottawa. He declined to find fault with James Teitsma for a nine-day road trip across the West because the Radisson MLA is a loving father.
Mr. Kenney likewise at first forgave his chief of staff, his municipal affairs minister and five government backbenchers for their Christmas vacations in Hawaii, Mexico and other warm places. His well of forgiveness ran dry, however, when he glanced out the palace window, figuratively speaking, and saw the flaming torches of the enraged mob climbing the hill with pitchforks.
The gallivanting Alberta public officials have all been officially punished since then, but the political damage to Mr. Kenney has already been done. Nathan Cooper, government MLA for Olds-Didsbury-Three Hills and Speaker of the Alberta Legislature, told his electors in a weekend circular the scandal should be a great embarrassment to the premier and his government.
Mr. Cooper wrote: "The hypocrisy of this scandal has clearly undermined this government’s moral authority, and while these senior officials have now been sanctioned, the government now faces an uphill battle in rebuilding the public trust that has been lost.
A similar uphill battle faces Manitoba’s ruling Conservatives. Mr. Pallister and his inner circle may take comfort in telling themselves they are suffering condemnation on account of their superior virtue and their courage in making tough choices. The people, however, are not such fools as Mr. Pallister imagines.
Forgiveness and compassion are excellent qualities, but clarity of thought is also important. A premier needs to maintain his government’s moral authority, as Mr. Cooper told the people of Olds-Didsbury-Three Hills. You don’t maintain moral authority by defending office-holders who openly scorn public-health warnings and by keeping them in office.
The health and the wealth of Manitobans will be sorely tried in the coming months before vaccines bring widespread protection from COVID-19. Mr. Pallister, who likes to play "stern dad," might be well advised to take a cue from his Alberta counterpart’s travails and do a little less "kind uncle" with the colleagues who undermine public trust in the government.