Jen Gerson: As Alberta Turns
In this week's episode of your favourite political soap; mysterious allegations emerge, infighting continues, and a character we thought had been killed off exits the shadows
Quick contest for all our loyal readers at The Line: if Alberta politics were a soap opera, how would you name it? All Alberta's Children? The Legislative Wing? 97th Avenue? NorthEnders?
As a journalist in this province, I am annually reminded of my good fortune, landing in a political culture that never stops with the hits. To the brave rotating cast that continues to step forward season after season, I must admit that I sometimes empathize; the scriptwriters only ever seem to want to top the previous episode, which subjects our main characters to increasingly implausible and cruel dramatic scenarios. We're one season away from a shark-jump plot twist in which a cynical minister of the crown winds up in a ditch with no memory, only to be taken in by a kindly family living on a farmstead in Grande Prairie who teach him the true meaning of community and love.
But, then, they all auditioned for the part.
Last episode, we left the premier of Alberta quasi-apologizing for the latest pandemic-related scandalette. Drone footage caught Jason Kenney dining al fresco with several of his ministers and a bottle of Jameson on the patio of the Skypalace — yes, the very same Skypalace that contributed to the political downfall of former premier Alison Redford back in Season 28. Although the once-swish apartment was converted to a more ordinary block of offices, the optics remain terrible. Kenney scrambled, insisting he wasn't breaking any COVID-19 social distancing rules because, technically, the meeting was an outdoor gathering, not a restaurant patio.
Well, that one hardly won the fans over. But just as that storyline was beginning to feel played out, another hit the scandal sheets. Alberta's own Western Standard came out with a stunner; the online newspaper is reporting that Kenney and his inner circle had been frequenting their own "secret restaurant" during lockdowns, and had been boozing it up while the rest of us plebes suffered, alone, isolated and unpartied.
The Standard has no one on the record, just anonymous sources. Government spokesbots immediately declared the report totally bogus. The restaurant in question, Bottega 104, also denied the claim. On social media, someone posting under the restaurant's banner even said Kenney had never been in the restaurant.
In a subsequent cease and desist letter issued to the Standard, Kenney said he had attended Bottega 104 only twice, once in 2019, and another time in the Summer of 2020.
When the restaurant was asked about the discrepancy, the social media man behind the handle noted that he had only worked at the restaurant since October and Kenney hadn't been in since then. The two accounts, therefore, align, and if we believe them, no secret booze parties had been hosted from January to the present date.
That is, of course, assuming that the restaurant's social media account isn't lying. And let's be clear here, absolutely everybody in this episode has a reason to lie.
No restaurant would wish to be subject to public condemnation for facilitating a violation of public-health orders.
Whoever leaked the story to the Western Standard is obviously motivated to lie in order to force the premier out of his chair at a vulnerable moment. The list of probable assassins on that front grows longer by the day.
And, of course, Kenney has a reason to lie because the story, if true, really could be the end of him.
The timing increases the stakes for everybody.
If you wanted to force Kenney out from the right, the moment is now. There's a two-to-three-week window in which the premier will be at his political nadir. Very few people are going to cut Kenney the benefit of the doubt on the secret restaurant scandal so close to the Skypalace pictures. The premier is riding low in the polls and beset from all sides.
But that opportunity is rapidly coming to an end.
Come July, COVID-19 restrictions are expected to be lifted, which should ease the political pressure that the premier is feeling from his right-ward flank. Alberta will be getting back to normal, its citizens will be enjoying the summer, and the premier's office will be keen to re-direct the narrative away from the pandemic and toward an incredibly dumb equalization referendum. (To be continued...)
In the middle of all this, someone here must be lying. The question is ... who?
Dramatic cliffhanger music.
First, a quick break for an unavoidable comment on journalistic methods and ethics before we return to this regularly scheduled analysis: The Western Standard story does not meet what most of us in the media business would euphemistically call a "publishable standard." The sources are anonymous; we have no sense of whether or not the accounts of secret hypocritical supper club boozing are first-or-second hand. The premier's office was, arguably, not given enough time to offer a response to the allegations. There is no independent corroboration from anyone who is willing to put a name on it.
That doesn't mean the story isn't true, just that there's a reason why we're reading about it in the Western Standard and not, say, any number of mainstream media outlets that have done yeoman's work breaking Alberta's political highlight reel in recent years.
The publisher of the Standard is Derek Fildebrandt, a name well-known to the denizens of #ableg. He is a former MLA from the Wildrose side of the great Alberta conservative divide and he has been the subject of a few controversies of his own. Most notably, when he was an MLA, he was accused of renting out his taxpayer-subsidized Edmonton apartment on Airbnb where it was reportedly used for a porn shoot. (Season 30. Episode 6). Fildebrandt quit the UCP in 2017 to sit as an independent, and was later denied the right to run under the UCP banner after his constituency was re-drawn a year later. All this to say, Fildebrandt and Kenney don't appear to be on each others' Christmas card lists.
Hence the Standard, which has been publishing a steady stream of well-sourced scoops from fellow disgruntled travellers ensconced in Kenney's backbiting cabinet. Credit where credit is due.
That said, this proliferation of partisan media is coming into prominence at a moment in which we all lack the informational immune system to know exactly how to react, and there's a political incentive to take wildly torqued or thinly sourced allegations and launder them through publications with lower journalistic standards, and no duty to fairness. And then laugh all the way to the leadership review while mainstream outlets write hand-wringing catch up stories that are predicated by ass-covering phrases like "as first reported by..."
None of this is to say that the Standard may not have a genuine scoop, here. What I am saying is that I just don't know.
Now, cut back to programming.
The more interesting question may not be whether or not the story is true, but rather whether or not the truth matters.
Kenney was able to unite the right around a promise to win back Alberta from the NDP. That kind of mandate is fine, as far as mandates go, right up until the moment that caucus begins to doubt an easy and seamless return to unquestioned generational power. If the NDP stands a chance of a clear majority victory — and they do — then what holds this disparate group of people together? Ideology? Friendship? Loyalty? Trust?
Kenney's popularity is so low, his caucus so burnt out, his credibility so strained, that the allegation alone may be all it takes to topple him. And if something this half-assed proves enough, well, then he was already leading from the tips of his toes.
Join us next week.
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