Alohagate, Open For Summer, UCP fractures: A recap of 2021 in Alberta politics

COVID-19 dominated the headlines everywhere in 2021, and Alberta was no different.

The province was forced to see-saw between various versions of open and closed as cases spiked and then faded twice before rocketing again in December.

The NDP rose in polling and fundraising, both Edmonton and Calgary picked new mayors, and the seemingly never-ending battle over healthcare raged on.

Unlike in previous years, Alberta’s premier declined a request for a year-end interview with CTV News.

Nonetheless, here is a recap of some of the biggest political stories of 2021.

ALOHAGATE, SKY PALACE AND THE CHRISTMAS PARTY

2021 started with a scandal for the United Conservative Party government, in the debacle dubbed “alohagate.”

After six of his MLAs and a senior staffer travelled internationally, Jason Kenney apologized to Albertans.

The trips resulted in consequences for the legislators, and Kenney’s chief of staff resigned.

“The buck stops with me,” Kenney said on January 6.

It wouldn’t be the last time Kenney made a COVID-19-related apology to angry Albertans.

“I want sincerely to apologize to my colleagues and to Albertans for letting you down,” Kenney said in June, after a controversial dinner at the already-infamous Sky Palace.

In December, the UCP was also criticized for holding a Christmas party just hours after several officials asked Albertans to cancel theirs, in an effort to slow the spread of the Omicron variant.

“If I were to sit in judgement of everyone who perhaps caused increased risk, I would not have enough hours in the day,” Dr. Deena Hinshaw said when asked about all three controversies.

UCP FRACTURES

In April, while COVID-19 was raging and the province tightened restrictions, a major crack in the UCP became clear. Seventeen UCP MLAs signed an open letter in opposition to Kenney’s decisions on restrictions.

“It’s time to protect civil liberties,” Drew Barnes, Cypress-Medicine Hat MLA, said at the time.

“The fact that we have a quarter of the UCP caucus raging against health orders represents a fundamental crisis of leadership,” NDP Leader Rachel Notley said.

In May, Barnes and Central Peace-Notley MLA Todd Loewen were booted from the UCP caucus.

But that wasn’t the end of the infighting.

Several MLAs openly criticized the premier for various things in 2021 including Leela Aheer, Rajan Sawhney, Richard Gotfried, Angela Pitt and Peter Guthrie.

“I demand the resignation of the premier. This is a failure of leadership,” Aheer said in October, when the premier’s office was sued.

BEST SUMMER EVER

With Alberta’s vaccine rollout underway, Kenney unveiled his “Open for Summer” plan with much confidence in May.

“It means that we’re finally getting back to normal, and I think it means the best Alberta summer ever,” he said while unveiling a huge banner.

Kenney’s enthusiasm was shared by a top government aide.

“The pandemic is over. Accept it,” Matt Wolf tweeted, in a proclamation that’s surely one of the most famous posts in the history of Alberta politics.

That’s because, despite some Calgary Stampede parties that followed, the premier apologized for loosening restrictions too early, just four months later as the virus surged again.

“It is now clear that we were wrong. And for that, I apologize,” Kenney said in September.

Prior to that press conference, the premier and his cabinet were accused of leaving their posts abandoned while they vacationed.

Critics said they were refusing to be held accountable, and failing to take charge of a mounting crisis, as they declined to introduce new restrictions and answer questions, including from a CTV News reporter.

Wolf left the premier’s office before the end of the year.

BRIAN JEAN’S COMEBACK

“This is my party,” Brian Jean said in November.

The former Wildrose leader re-entered politics with his sights set on taking out the premier.

“Do the right thing and step down for the good of the party we created and the good of Alberta,” Jean urged Kenney in June.

With the premier polling at around 22 per cent approval, Jean set out to win a by-election to become an MLA in an attempt to take over.

That vote will happen in 2022, and Kenney is scheduled to face a leadership review from UCP members around the same time.

Kenney fired back at Jean, questioning his “commitment and reliability.” He then declared a victory after the party’s annual general meeting.

“I know some of you guys were hoping for a fight yesterday, but it didn’t happen,” the premier told reporters in November.

FOCUS ON THE ECONOMY

Throughout the chaos in the UCP, Kenney tried to keep his party and his message to the public focused on the economy.

A rebound of oil and gas revenue was expected to slash the province’s budget deficit to under $6 billion dollars.

Kenney and his ministers also tried to drown out the criticism he faced by making announcements about investments in the film, technology and resource industries.

File photo.

“Albertans are natural optimists. They just need a reason for their optimism. Well, there are lots of reasons right now including the fact that we are leading Canada by far in economic growth,” Kenney told the Calgary Chamber of Commerce this month.

“Kenney’s pinning everything on (oil and gas prices),” said political scientist Duane Bratt of Calgary’s Mount Royal University.

Between a surge in cases of the new Omicron variant, a divided caucus, and a party that has had trouble steering clear of scandal, Kenney has his work cut out for him in 2022.

The premier still hopes to prove he’s the person who can pull his party, and the province together, before an election in 2023.

With files from CTV News Edmonton’s Chelan Skulski and The Canadian Press

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