Premier Jason Kenney has not reprimanded Municipal Affairs Minister Tracy Allard after she took a vacation to Hawaii despite public-health recommendations against unnecessary travel, but instead issued a new “clear directive” to government officials not to travel internationally.
“And that is why I am issuing a clear directive today to cabinet ministers, government MLA’s, political staff and senior executives in the Alberta public service, not to leave the country for the foreseeable future unless it is absolutely required for government-related business.”
CBC News had reported Thursday that Allard was in Hawaii this month on a family vacation, amid strict COVID-19 restrictions in Alberta that include no indoor or outdoor gatherings, a ban on in-person dining, and limits on retail capacities.
Kenney said at the availability Friday that he was informed on Tuesday that Minister Allard was in the U.S. and had left for her trip on Dec. 19.
On Friday afternoon, Allard apologized during a media teleconference.
“In short, this was an incredible lapse of judgement on my part,” Allard said.
“There was no malicious intent. However, I caused damage, and for that I’m truly sorry. I’m sorry to the Albertans that trusted me that feel that they can’t at this time.”
Kenney said that “a few” other MLAs, political staff, and other officials have been abroad in recent weeks.
MLA Jeremy Nixon was also out of the country, a spokesperson for the premier’s office confirmed in an email to Global News Friday evening. The email said Nixon was informed he was to come home, and will be returning on the earliest available flight.
Nixon was appointed parliamentary secretary to the minister of community and social services on March 21, 2020.
MLA Tanya Fir also travelled to the U.S. In a Facebook post, she said she has since returned after travelling to visit her sister.
“I recognize that those of us in positions of public trust must maintain a higher standard in our personal conduct than is expected of folks in the general population,” Kenney said.
“I take responsibility for not having clearly set out or communicated a policy against international travel for senior decision-makers in government. I should have done so.”
He added that he did not have exact details on how many officials have travelled.
“I don’t have a comprehensive list of everybody amongst the hundreds of government political staff and senior officials and others who may have travelled abroad… I regret not having issued a very clear directive against international travel.”
The premier outlined Friday how Alberta has had a “careful and balanced” strategy on its approach to travel. He noted the international pilot program that was launched in November at Calgary’s airport and the Coutts land border crossing that allows travellers to be tested when they arrive.
“Alberta has sought to support and facilitate safe travel during the COVID era,” Kenney said. “We’ve done so as part of our effort to protect both lives and livelihoods.
“Completely shutting down travel would result not only in tens of thousands of more job losses, but would likely result in the financial collapse of Canada’s airline industry.”
NDP says trip shows ‘lack of empathy’ for COVID-19 situation
The opposition NDP is calling for the resignation of Allard.
“The problem is, going forward, we’re still — importantly — asking Albertans to make a lot of sacrifices,” said NDP Leader Rachel Notley on Friday. “It’s hard for them to keep doing it while their leadership is not demonstrating the same behaviour.”
Notley said that she believes the UCP are using a “technicality” — that the trip was not illegal — to excuse Allard’s travelling.
“It shows a complete lack of empathy for the experience for the people of this province.”
She also called for the UCP to release a list of all the government officials who have recently travelled.
“They need to be accountable to their constituents, for the that fact they believe the rules don’t apply to them,” Notley said.
Ontario’s finance minister resigned from his position in cabinet this week following a highly-criticized vacation he took to the Caribbean.
Political scientist Duane Bratt said that the public backlash over the trip and the lack of consequence is understandable.
“Yes, other Albertans have left the country over the holidays,” Bratt said. “But they are not part of the government. They do not work for the government, they are not involved in communicating the restrictions.
“I think the right option was to make a stand, and to say, ‘I have removed Tracy Allard from cabinet,’ — I think that was the appropriate response.”
Minister posted Christmas messages implying she was in Alberta
In a now-deleted tweet, Minister Allard had posted a Christmas message online on Dec. 24 that showed a picture of her in the Alberta legislature.
Kenney had confirmed Friday that the minister’s trip had begun on Dec. 19, meaning she was already on her vacation when the photo was shared.
Allard said that it was a “common practice” for MLAs to pre-record Christmas messages.
“That had been planned for quite a while,” Allard said. “It was in no way intended to cover up where I was. While I don’t advertise when I take a trip personally, I also don’t hide it.”
Kenney said he was “disappointed” in the minister’s decision to travel.
“She recognizes in retrospect it was the wrong thing to do, and she has certainly apologized to me,” Kenney said.
The controversies around government travel comes after the federal government announced new travel rules due to the pandemic, including requiring all air travellers to obtain a negative COVID-19 test three days before arrival.
Kenney said Friday that he believes Albertans can and should continue to be permitted to travel internationally, despite his new directive for officials not to.
“In this context of safe travel, between 10- and 20-thousand Albertans are moving through our airports every day right now,” Kenney said.
“Tens of thousands of Albertans are currently out of the province, many of them on vacation in warmer climates. Tens of thousands more have plans to do the same over the months to come.
“There is no public health order or legal barrier barring them from doing so. What we ask of all of those people, in fact what we require of all of them legally, is that they scrupulously follow all of the travel-related public health orders.”
–With files from The Canadian Press