Kenney Rejects Notley’s Request for a Public Inquiry. Why?

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At last count there have been 1,550 Covid-19 infections and three deaths connected with the Cargill, JBS and Harmony Beef meatpacking plants in Alberta.   

This is frightening in a province that prides itself on having the highest testing levels in the country and was so comfortable with its Covid-19 preparedness plan that it donated PPE to BC, Ont and Quebec last month.

The only way to understand why Alberta’s meatpacking plants turned into a national Covid-19 hotspot and to prevent a similar tragedy from reoccurring is to proceed with Rachel Notley’s call for a public inquiry.

Sadly, Jason Kenney rejected Notley’s proposal. He cited three reasons; all of which are ludicrous.   

Premier Jason Kenney

Partisanship

First Kenney reverted to his default position, rebuffing Notley’s call for a public inquiry by accusing her of “politicizing” the issue.

What?

Covid-19 is a virus. A virus has no political affiliation. The coronavirus infected and killed thousands of Canadians, and brought our economy to a standstill without regard for who is sitting in the premier’s office (or in the prime minister’s office for that matter).   

One would think both parties, the NDP and the UCP, would be equally concerned about spiking infection rates at the Cargill, JSB and Harmony Beef plants and the implications of these spikes on the surrounding communities of High River, Brooks, and Balzac.  

Unfortunately, that’s not how Kenney sees it.  

Experts’ advice  

Kenney said a public inquiry isn’t necessary because his government followed the best expert advice it received from Alberta Health, public health officers, the Chief Medical Officer, Dr Deena Hinshaw, OH&S, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Alberta Agriculture, and “all of our expert officials”.

Bearing in mind that this is the man who cherry picks experts’ advice—he likes Janice MacKinnon on balancing the budget, he doesn’t like Mark Carney on curbing investment in fossil fuels—he’s missing the point.  

The issue is not whether the government received the best expert advice but whether it followed this advice in the most effective way.

A secondary question is: what advice, if any, did the government receive from executives running the Cargill, JBS, and Harmony Beef plants and how much weight it gave their advice compared to the weight it gave the advice it received from health experts.

We’ll never know because Kenney refuses to call a public inquiry.     

Extended debate     

Kenney’s third reason for rejecting a public inquiry is the government will bring forward a motion to allow an “extended debate” on Alberta’s Covid-19 response. If Kenney is suggesting an extended debate in the Legislature is an adequate substitute for an independent public inquiry, he’s mistaken.    

A public inquiry is heard by an impartial commissioner, often a retired judge, who has the power to subpoena witnesses, compel them to give evidence under oath and provide documentation to support their testimony. Witnesses may bring lawyers and may be subject to cross examination. The process of collecting and analysing evidence takes months. At the end of the inquiry the commissioner writes a report describing his findings and setting out his recommendations so the government will be in a better position to protect the public the next time a pandemic rolls around.  

Compare the public inquiry process to the legislative debate process.

The time for debate is compressed into days (not months). Politicians (not witnesses) make statements (which are not under oath and not subject to cross-examination) based on what they believe happened. The members’ statements are recorded in Hansard (there is no written report setting out recommendations based on the evidence). The press picks up the debate (assuming there aren’t more pressing things going on, like relaunching the economy or a precipitous drop in the price of oil). Columnists write about it for a few days and everybody moves on.   

Real question

Kenney is not opposed to public inquiries on principle. He happily forked over $2.5 million for a public inquiry into foreign funded anti-Alberta energy campaigns, a “problem” significantly less pressing than a global pandemic that wreaked havoc at three Alberta meatpacking plants infecting hundreds of people, killing three, while also devastating Alberta’s beef industry and disrupting 85% of Canada’s beef supply.

So what’s Kenney’s problem?  

Either he’s right and his government did everything it could to ensure the safety of Albertans working at the meatpacking plants and it still wasn’t enough; or he’s wrong and his government failed to do everything it could to keep Albertans safe. In either case a public inquiry would expose these shortcomings and provide recommendations that would make it safer for all employees working in close proximity in the future.

Given Kenney’s refusal to call a public inquiry let me save you the bother of waiting for the extended debate to appear in Hansard. Here’s a summary of how it will go:

NDP: the government should have acted sooner and done more.

UCP: the government did everything right, and if we didn’t, blame the experts  

NDP: public officials give advice; cabinet makes decisions

UCP: there you go again, going partisan on us

We’re fighting for our lives, our health and our economy in the face of a global pandemic. We deserve a premier who will act in the public interest by calling a public inquiry into the failures at Cargill, JSB and Harmony Beef, instead of defaulting to political rhetoric.

Leadership in the Post-Pandemic World

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It’s been two and a half months since the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic; infections and deaths will continue until a vaccine is found. Economists and global thinkers may disagree on what the new world will look like, but they’re aligned on one thing: it’s not too soon for us to start thinking about the world we hope to live in when we finally reach the other side of this crisis.   

We’ve learned some important lessons already.  

The quality of government, particularly its leader, is critical  

Covid-19 gave Albertans the opportunity to compare two very different governments, the provincial government led by Jason Kenney and the federal government led by Justin Trudeau.

Kenney’s government hung back waiting for the feds to step into the breach with social programs to ease the suffering of Albertans. It also doubled down on its pre-Covid agenda, attacking social services, particularly public education and healthcare, while the pandemic gained purchase. Particularly odious was the health minister’s refusal to reverse his decision to cut physician compensation until it became obvious the UCP would lose rural seats.  

Premier Kenney

While the Alberta government was creating havoc and heartache, the federal government delivered a dizzying array of social programs to help Canadians weather the economic upheaval caused by the virus. (It goes without saying that the Notley government’s response would be more akin to that of the federal government, than Kenney’s government).

As we move through the pandemic, we need to consider what kind of leader would be best suited to navigating the rapidly changing, and often dangerous, new world—one who is dogmatic and inflexible or one who grasps the issues and responds quickly and effectively.  

We need visionaries   

The economist, Mohamed El-Erian, is concerned governments are defaulting to remedies (like bailouts for airlines and oil companies) that worked in the past, when they should be exploring new remedies for crises we’ve never experienced before. Instead of financial models that keep zombie companies alive in zombie markets, El-Erian says governments should consider an economic model that relies on productivity and people.

He argues for a more thoughtful approach and suggests we investigate economic theories like universal basic income and modern monetary theory (MMT) that were once considered impractical.

Given Kenney’s demand that the federal government bailout the energy industry to the tune of $20 to $30 billion, it’s unlikely he or his government and its advisors have the imagination necessary to consider any remedy other than one that props up Alberta’s one-trick pony fossil fuel economy.  

As Alberta moves into the new world, we will need leaders who are willing to pressure-test old economic assumptions, instead of defaulting to the path that brought us to this economic cul-de-sac in the first place.  

The economy does not take precedence over society

Remember when the UCP said we must be prosperous before we can be a compassionate caring society? Covid-19 showed us the opposite is true. When the economy ground to a halt, the social safety net and the community reaching out to its members helped us survive.

And yet, Kenney’s faith in the preeminence of economic prosperity is unshaken.

Despite the fact Alberta has not flattened the curve, the Kenney government is reopening the economy starting May 4. This means workers with legitimate concerns about catching the virus will have to report to work.

Nowhere is this more unconscionable than at Alberta’s meat packing plants. The Cargill plant and the JBS plant together are responsible for 42% of all of Alberta’s covid cases, including two deaths. And yet the Kenney government is allowing them to operate.  

We need to decide what kind of government we want: one that puts the economy above society or one that recognizes the importance of life as well as livelihood?

What we can do now

The pandemic exposed the stark reality of inequality, underfunded public programs and the importance of a social safety net in calamitous times.

We will overcome the Covid-19 crisis, but looming on the horizon is an even bigger crisis, that of climate change.

Yes, it feels overwhelming, but as Samantha Power, former US Ambassador to the UN, said: when we think the problems are too big and we’re too small to do anything about them, we can make a difference by “shrinking the change”, by picking a manageable piece of the bigger problem and working on it.

In this case we can work with Rachel Notley’s NDP to ensure Jason Kenney’s UCP do not form government in 2023.

We need leaders and governments who are ready to tackle tomorrow’s challenges, not the battles of yesteryear.  

*Comments by Mohamed El-Erian and Samantha Power are from the Munk Dialogues: World After Covid19 https://munkdebates.com/dialogues  

Jason Kenney’s Fight with Alberta’s Doctors

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“The crisis we have in health care, rural included, is a void of leadership by the UCP government. They were voted in with a majority government, but do not seem to understand the difference between leadership and power.” —  Dr Ed Aasman

The Greeks defined hubris is a character flaw, a combination of pride and ambition so great they offend the gods and lead to one’s downfall.   

What level of hubris led Jason Kenney and his health minister, Tyler Shandro, to believe they could get away with passing legislation giving them the power to rip up the Master Agreement with Alberta’s doctors, violate the doctors’ right to fair negotiation and binding arbitration, and unilaterally impose a new fee structure that would dramatically cut physician compensation, without any pushback?   

Then when the doctors begged Kenney and Shandro to hold off implementing the fee changes until after the pandemic passed, why did Kenney and Shandro double down?  

The Kenney government’s draconian behavior is inexcusable and Alberta’s doctors, with the support of their patients, fought back.   

It was a tough slog.

It took hundreds of doctors telling Kenney and Shandro that over 400 community clinics would close or lay off staff, and countless doctors announcing they would leave Alberta after the pandemic was over, and thousands of Albertans flooding their MLAs with letters demanding the government reverse course, before the government paid attention.

Health Minister Shandro

Not my fault (again)

On Apr 24, Shandro gave a press conference. He was flanked by some rural MLAs (but no doctors) when he unveiled a $81 million package to support rural doctors.

He said the government:

  • would cancel rural fee changes because they didn’t realize an unintended consequence was a reduction in access to healthcare in rural areas (if they’d listened to the doctors, they might have had a clue),
  • was permanently reversing the fee changes for rural areas (that promise is as binding as the Master Agreement they ripped up in February)
  • would pause the fee changes in urban areas, pending further review (what’s to review? An appendectomy is an appendectomy regardless of where it’s performed; if the government wants to incentivize rural practice provide incentives, don’t mess with the urban fee)
  • was adding $57 million to top-up rural service (because if rural doctors distrust Kenney so much they leave, Kenney’s rural base will desert him in 2023)

Shandro stated repeatedly that the $81 million plan was the result of concrete proposals from the rural MLAs and was not, repeat, not, the result of consultation with the AMA. Furthermore the plan proceeded on an expedited basis because his government ripped up the AMA Master Agreement, and (here’s the icing on the cake), the government would not take responsibility for causing “anxiety” in the middle of the pandemic, it was the AMA’s fault, they spread “misinformation” to the doctors.   

The entire press conference felt like an effort to sweeten the pot for rural doctors, pit them against urban doctors, weaken the AMA and shore up Kenney’s rural base.

Doctors are unimpressed

This is shameful and Alberta’s doctors are not buying it.

The rural physicians (represented by the Rural Sustainability Group) issued a letter saying they appreciated the government’s support of rural medicine, but the government still wasn’t listening. What the rural doctors want is an agreement that allows for arbitration, thereby avoiding unilateral decision making by the government.  

The president of the Section for Rural Medicine is squarely behind the AMA, noting the AMA is the “venue for physician leadership and the vehicle through which Alberta’s physicians have worked with the government for 114 years.”  

The AMA said the temporary suspension of fee changes during the pandemic is a positive step, but if the government wants to find long term solutions to healthcare challenges it should work with doctors, not rip up their contract, continually misrepresent their compensation and take away their right to binding arbitration.  

Kenney’s attempt to pit rural doctors against urban doctors did not succeed, but it does raise the question: Why did Kenney do it?

What drove him to pass legislation allowing him to rip up the AMA Master Agreement and impose his own fee structure on Alberta’s doctors? What caused him to ram this ill-conceived plan down the doctors’ throats in the middle of a global pandemic?

Was it a desire to teach the doctors a lesson after the AMA refused to bow to Kenney’s demands for cuts? Was it resentment that Rachel Notley was able to negotiate doctors’ fees without a ripple of discontent?  

Was it plain old hubris?

One thing is clear, if the Kenney government is prepared to go after our doctors in the middle of a pandemic, then none of us are safe.

The Leader and His Team

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It’s been a tough week for everyone; especially that “young, energetic and diverse team with deep experience” that Jason Kenney (his words by the way) appointed to Cabinet.

Health Minister Shandro took it upon himself to turn up at a Calgary doctor’s house and yell at him for reposting a Facebook meme that suggested the health minister was in a conflict of interest position because he and his wife own a supplementary health benefits company called Vital Partners. Minister Shandro also told another private citizen that if she didn’t stop sending threatening emails to his wife (they were sent to Vital Partner’s corporate web page and weren’t threatening) he’d refer the matter to “protective services”.

A Minister of the Crown yelling at citizens or threatening to send “protective services” to their doorsteps is not the way to allay their concerns.     

Education Minister LaGrange issued a press release this weekend informing 25,000 teachers and non-certificated staff they were fired, at least temporarily. It’s okay, she said, the Feds will take care of you and besides we’ll re-allocate the money saved from this cut to Alberta’s COVID-19 response.

Premier Kenney

Economist Trevor Tombe called this a cut of “massive scale” and said it was “false” for the government to say the savings were being reallocated to COVID-19 because the savings will impact Alberta’s debt, not its health spending.        

And while we’re on the topic of so-so cabinet ministers, what happened to Sonya Savage, our Energy Minister? She’s completely faded off the scene, replaced in all but name by Mr Kenney. Yesterday he was urging the federal government to go after Saudi Arabia and other OPEC countries for predatory dumping (“we cannot let them win”); he also said he’ll be speaking with American politicians and administrators about a coordinated plan to defend the industry. 

The only thing he didn’t say is that he’d shut down the $30 million/year war room and reallocate the savings to fighting COVID-19.  

Deep experience?   

No one is expecting the Alberta government to fix COVID-19 and its impact on our social and economic well being overnight. However some of us would argue that the “young, energetic and diverse team with deep experience” appointed by Mr Kenney is coming apart at the seams. Either that or Mr Kenney lacks the confidence in them to let them do their jobs.  

Which leads us to wonder whether Mr Kenney’s characterization about the competence of his Cabinet is valid.  

Albertans have no way of checking whether Shandro, LaGrange or Savage have the experience necessary to do their jobs at the best of times, let alone in the middle of a pandemic and global economic downturn, because their biographies do not appear on the Alberta government website.*

This is peculiar given that the descriptions of the remaining 17 cabinet ministers, 3 associate ministers, 3 parliamentary secretaries and one military liaison include their biographies. (Even the 27 deputy ministers have biographies for god’s sake).

So what gives?

Health Minister Shandro is responsible for the government’s response to the biggest public health emergency Alberta has ever faced; Education Minister LaGrange is responsible for K-12 education which is experiencing unprecedented upheaval as a result of COVID-19 and Energy Minister Savage is responsible for energy, the mainstay of Alberta’s one-trick pony economy; is it too much to ask for a modicum of transparency so Albertans could view their qualifications for the job?  

They say a leader is only as good as his team. Unfortunately, the Kenney government has chosen to hide the biographies of three critical Cabinet ministers.  

Given the performance of his team over the last few weeks of escalating crisis, this is deeply concerning.

*NOTE: A reader tells me he can see Sonya Savage’s bio. I’ve check on a few different browser, but still see nothing but a button marked “Learn More”. In any event, the question still remains, does Jason Kenney’s Cabinet have the bench strength necessary to lead Alberta through these difficult times?

The Impact of COVID-19 on Democracy

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James Madison said tyranny arises “on some favourable emergency”.

The COVID-19 pandemic is today’s “favourable emergency.” It’s being used by unscrupulous politicians as a smokescreen for undemocratic behavior in Alberta’s Legislature and an excuse for Jason Kenney to enlist the crème de la crème of right-wing conservative thinkers to reshape Alberta’s economy.

Undemocratic behavior in the Legislature

Last week NDP opposition leader Rachel Notley told the House about a number of instances where the Kenney government violated the principles of democracy.*  

She said the Kenney government introduced motions without allowing the NDP Opposition to see them beforehand and then lied to the House by claiming written notice had been provided when it had not.

Rachel Notley NDP Opposition Leader

She described how the Kenney government threatened to withdraw the $500 million it had promised support frontline workers battling COVID-19 if the NDP Opposition did not unanimously support what she described was an “unorthodox” change in the budget numbers.  

Government lies and threats have no place in the democratic process.

Lastly, the Kenney government rammed through the budget with 3 hours of debate when House rules require 30 plus hours of debate time. It’s not as if the time wasn’t available. The government simply cancelled the 10 hours of debate time that had been scheduled for the prior evening and that morning.

Why the rush?

Because by short-circuiting debate the Kenney government could shield itself from financial accountability, oversight, and transparency; and (perhaps just as important) shield spineless UCP MLAs who supported cuts that will harm their own constituents.

Hiding from accountability and oversight while ducking your own constituents is undemocratic and cowardly.

The Kenney government said the COVID-19 pandemic justified its behavior and yet other governments, including Saskatchewan, Ontario, and the federal government delayed their budgets, recognizing the pandemic had rendered their budget numbers irrelevant.     

The Harper Council

The Kenney government promised to do everything in its power to protect jobs and job creators in the face of COVID-19 and plunging oil prices. It created the Economic Recovery Council to guide Alberta through the downturn and to develop strategies for long-term recovery, including economic diversification.    

The Council is chaired by economist Jack Mintz (who believes Alberta could Wexit easier than the UK could Brexit) and includes Stephen Harper, former prime minister and now chair of the International Democrat Union (IDU), an alliance of centre-right, conservative political parties. Margaret Thatcher was one of its founding members.

The Harper Council (let’s face it, Stephen Harper will have more sway over the outcome than the other 11 members put together) is top heavy with executives from banks, private equity funds, and the energy sector and light on everything else. This is an indication of what Albertans can expect from the Council—recommendations that echo Kenney’s call for more government support of the energy sector at the expense of everything else (there’s a reason why the AIMCo CEO is at the table).  

One might ask why the Kenney government did not commit to doing everything in its power to protect its citizens from the social consequences of COVID-19 and plummeting oil prices and set up a parallel Council of healthcare and other professionals to develop strategies for our long term social recovery.  

The answer is simple. Kenney accepts responsibility for the economy (sort of, when things go bad it’s someone else’s fault, when things go well he takes a bow), but he will not accept responsibility for society, hence his government’s continuing attacks on Alberta’s doctors smack in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis.  

Thankfully Albertans can rely on the Trudeau government which is committed to spending billions to help Albertans weather this crisis.   

Compassion vs prosperity

Remember when the UCP said we can’t be a compassionate, caring society until we’re a prosperous one. This Thatcherism became the foundation of Jason Kenney’s election promise of “jobs, economy, pipelines” and was reflected in one of his first pieces of legislation, the “job creating tax cut.”

We knew Jason Kenney was wrong, but it wasn’t until the coronavirus hit that we realized just how wrong he was.  

All the tax cuts in the world aren’t going to put Alberta’s economy back on track because as economist Jim Stanford says, it is “work” (which he defines as human effort) that’s critical to economic activity. Human effort transforms the materials we get from nature into useful goods and services. Sure, corporate investment is important, but it is by no means the only driver.  

And until human effort returns to the economy in the form of production and consumption, the economy is going nowhere.

Think about that for a moment.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced human effort to withdraw from the economy in all but the “essential” sectors (some of which were invisible to us until now).

What if something as powerful as a pandemic, say a desire to stop the degradation of public services like education and healthcare, were to capture Albertans’ imagination and they withdrew their human effort for, say, one day a week until politicians agreed it was time to reconsider the balance between the economy and society.

Oh wait, we already know how to do that. It’s called a General Strike.

Hmmm…

*Alberta Hansard, Mar 17, 2020 p 221

COVID-19: A Study in Leadership

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 “The first role of government is to help people in crisis or need. That’s why we have government.”– John McCain

Crisis separates the leaders from wannabes.

We will be watching our leaders and wannabes very carefully over the next few months to see how they respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, we want to see whether they adopt what Chris Hadfield calls “boldface” procedures—“boldface” is a term used by pilots to describe the procedures that could save your life in a crisis.

The coronavirus pandemic is moving very quickly and we’ve learned some boldface procedures from other jurisdictions that will help “flatten the curve”, but these procedures require governments to have the wisdom and the courage to spend the money and take the steps necessary to meet the pandemic head on, rather than hanging back until it’s too late to catch up.

How are we doing so far?

Stepping up…or not

At the federal level, Prime Minister Trudeau is taking action.

He’s committed $1 billion to fight COVID-19: $500 million is allocated to provincial and territorial governments which are responsible for health care delivery, $5 million goes toward increased Employment Insurance sickness benefits for those who need to go into self-isolation, $50 million is earmarked for protective equipment for health care workers, over $275 million is for prevention and research, and millions more will go to regional public health services.

And that’s just the beginning, Mr Trudeau promises there’s more to come next week.

The prime minister is demonstrating strong leadership in a time of crisis.  

On the provincial front, Premier Jason Kenney has been much slower to react.    

Yesterday Mr Kenney made a faith and hope speech, brimming with patriotic platitudes and warning that things would get “much worse” before they got better. Mr Kenney called for “direct and timely interventions” by governments (plural) to support workers, employers, families and businesses, so we can take care of each other, especially the vulnerable, the old, the sick, and the unemployed.

He did not offer any “direct and timely interventions” until this afternoon when he announced $500 million in funding to ensure frontline health professionals have the staffing, resources and supplies they need for testing, surveillance and treatment.

Mr Kenney, coming in on the heels of Justin Trudeau

Mr Kenney’s funding commitment is better late than never, but the fact he waited until after prime minister Trudeau made his announcement is a concern. “You first” is not a sign of good leadership, it’s a cop out.    

The frontline and Budget 2020

Now here’s where it gets tricky.

When Mr Kenney announced the $500 million commitment he said, “Alberta’s public health workers are doing an outstanding job, and we are here to support them with whatever they need.” If he really meant it, he’d take another look at Budget 2020.

Budget 2020 reflects Mr Kenney’s contention that Alberta’s healthcare professionals are overpaid and inefficient. It purports to address this by (1) significantly cutting nursing jobs and (2) materially reducing physician’s compensation.

This left Alberta’s healthcare professionals feeling demoralized and burnt out…and then COVID-19 turned up on our doorstep.   

Rachel Notley has been fighting to reverse the cuts to nurses, and has urged Mr Kenney to “pause” the implementation of changes to doctors’ compensation until the COVID-19 crisis is behind us.  Mr Kenney refuses to budge.

Why?

Mr Kenney says the budget must pass because the government needs spending authority by Mar 31.  This implies that the government will implode if the budget is not in place on April 1.  

Guess what, we’re not the US government, we don’t have to shut down and furlough staff because the government fails to pass a spending bill by a certain date. The Alberta government has the power to pass interim supply bills (which it does on a regular basis) and special warrants to pay as needed.

If Mr Kenney were inclined to address the challenges posed by the coronavirus, he could delay passing Budget 2020.  He simply chooses not to do so; likely because he’d have to revise the budget’s revenue forecasts which are wrongly based on rising oil prices. He simply doesn’t want to admit that economists like Trevor Tombe are predicting Alberta’s deficit will rise to $11-12 billion this year, $8-9 billion next year and $4 billion the year after that and our overall debt will balloon to over $100 billion.

Being afraid to admit you made a mistake is not effective leadership, it’s lunacy.

Instead of facing the music, Mr Kenney tried to fob off Alberta’s doctors and nurses with the promise that there will be no healthcare layoffs during the COVID-19 crisis. How nice, they can work until they drop and run a higher risk of being infected with COVID-19 than the general population…and get fired after the crisis has passed.  

Leadership?

Mr Kenney has been quick to respond to a failing economy by implementing a $4.7 billion corporate tax cut (which failed to create jobs) and a $30 million/year war room (which failed to improve the energy sector’s reputation).

He’s been slow to respond to a pandemic that threatens to upend Alberta’s healthcare systems and he continues to exacerbate the chaos and uncertainty by refusing to “pause” his government unilateral imposition of pay cuts on Alberta’s physicians.    

Thankfully our healthcare professionals will honour their commitment to care for us and our families.

They will lead us through this crisis while Mr Kenney huffs and puffs on the sidelines.