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Is the timing of Alberta's premier's vacation related to COVID-19? The federal election? Pundits weigh in

EDMONTON -

"First of all, let's make sure: the premier is entitled to a vacation," Stephen Carter says early Wednesday morning.

The campaign strategist who once worked for an Alberta premier is steadfast in his belief the job of a leader is a taxing one, and best done by someone who's not burnt out.

However, Aug. 25 marks a little more than two weeks since current Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has made a public appearance, as well as the early days of a fourth COVID-19 wave – the premise of which, when asked about in the early summer, Kenney equated to fearmongering.

"But now is not the time," Carter says. "His actions have led us to this place, and it feels to me he should be here taking action to ensure this does not get worse than it is."

Kenney's press secretary, Jerrica Goodwin, would only say on Thursday he is on two weeks of holidays and due to return "next week." 

"While the Premier is on holidays, he is of course still able to fully communicate with his Cabinet and senior officials as required. In fact, he has participated in numerous briefings on important subjects -- including on COVID-19 -- while 'on holidays,'" Goodwin told CTV News. 

But while the premier's vacation wraps up, Alberta's COVID-19 hospital and ICU rates have reached 10-week highs. Alberta reported 258 COVID-19 patients in hospital on Tuesday, up eight from Monday's adjusted total, and the most since June 15. There are 57 patients with coronavirus receiving care in ICUs, an increase of three and the highest number since June 17.

On June 18, Kenney announced Alberta would lift nearly all COVID-19 rules on Canada Day. When asked how confident he was in the plan given the possibility of a fourth wave, Kenney told reporters it's not "responsible constantly to be spreading fear." And when asked if the province could need to reinstate restrictions, he replied, "We just don't see that scenario… This is open for good, not just open for summer."

The remarks were reckless, says Mount Royal University political scientist Keith Brownsey.  

"Jason Kenney looks foolish."

STAYING OUT OF O'TOOLE'S WAY?

Brownsey believes Alberta's COVID-19 numbers could be part of Kenney's decision to vacation mid-August.

Carter points out Kenney could have booked his vacation weeks ago, perhaps in June when he considered Alberta "open for good."

But both also see maybe another strategic consideration: the federal election called within a week of Kenney's last public appearance.

"I think it's fairly obvious to political observers… that Jason Kenney and his UCP colleagues are staying out of the federal election. They're just keeping a very low profile in aid of Erin O'Toole and the Conservative Party of Canada," Brownsey says.

He notes Kenney was absent for the provincial chief medical officer of health's announcement on Aug. 13 that Alberta would be backing down from a plan to further relax rules. It's not known whether Kenney was already on vacation at the time.

"They didn't want anything to do with it," Brownsey speculates. "Part of that, again I want to reiterate, was probably because they wanted to stay out of the way during the federal election. Remember, Jason Kenney's numbers and the UCP's numbers are pretty bad in Alberta right now."  

Carter adds, "Federal elections are a time when the oxygen and the eyeballs are all pointed at someone other than you."

Alberta's Official Opposition called the United Conservative's recent silence doubly motivated.

"It's an embarrassment for the people of Alberta that their government has mishandled so many core files, has done such a terrible job of leadership that they have become an embarrassment on the federal scene," NDP health critic David Shepherd would say Wednesday afternoon.

"I think they are afraid of their far right base, their own MLAs. And they're afraid of having to answer for the fact that the premier only weeks ago stood and said, 'Oh, that's not the sort of scenario we see coming.'"

WHEN DOES KENNEY RETURN?

Yet, Brownsey doesn't see the situation as about to boil over on Kenney's caucus.

"It's before Labour Day. And what are we all thinking about right now: How do we spend this next couple of weeks before Labour Day? What do we do with the Labour Day weekend?" he said. "We're really not tuned into any of this much, so if it was going to do damage, it's probably the best time."

Carter, however, senses more demand for Kenney.

"The actions he took in June and July have backfired on this premier and it means he should be here instead of on vacation."

It's not known when Kenney will appear publicly again. The premier's office did not directly answer what dates Kenney was vacationing. 

The MRU political scientist doesn't expect to hear much from any member of the Alberta government for a while.

"I don't expect to hear form any of them – or at least much from any of them – until after the federal election," Brownsey said.

"And that might be the height – the absolute pinnacle – of the fourth wave of COVID."

With files from CTV News Edmonton's Jeremy Thompson, Matthew Black and Carlyle Fiset and CTV News Calgary's Tyson Fedor

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