Imagine a chilly and dark December evening in Alberta. It’s snowing and a cold wind is blowing. Standing at the steps of the Legislative Assembly building in Edmonton are more than 500 parka wearing Albertans, mostly public sector workers, listening to speeches decrying the government’s new anti-labour legislation. Labour leaders, New Democrats and Liberals have already spoken and voiced their strong opposition to the bills, next up at the microphone is a representative from… the Wildrose Party.
Amid a storm of embarrassing news stories of unreported deaths of children in the foster care system, Human Services Minister Dave Hancock rushed forward last week with Bill 45: Public Sector Services Continuation Act and Bill 46: Public Service Salary Restraint Act.
These two bills will allow the Redford Government to bypass a legally binding arbitration process in order to force a wage-freeze on 22,000 government employees represented by the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, increase harsh fines for illegal strikes and “strike threats,” and introduce restrictions on freedom of speech. Mr. Hancock had initially proposed pass much of this legislation in a short 48 hour period.
Mr. Hancock’s haste, with the blessing of Premier Alison Redford, led to three days of large protests outside the Alberta Legislature. This is not Ukraine or Wisconsin, so there were not tens of thousands of protesters clashing with riot police or occupying government buildings. But there were more than five hundred public servants who, politely and passionately, gathered outside the Legislative Assembly building each day to voice their opposition to this legislation. This is Alberta. And it is winter. It is cold.
In Mr. Hancock’s rush, a most unlikely alliance appears to be forming. On Friday, Wildrose Official Opposition MLA Joe Anglin, a former United States Marine who briefly led Alberta’s Green Party, stood on the steps of the Assembly building to show his support for the 700 public sector workers braving the cold to oppose the Redford Government’s anti-labour bills.
And yesterday, perhaps more symbolically, the Wildrose Opposition’s conservative Deputy Leader, Rob Anderson, stood on those same steps to show party’s support for the more than 500 Albertans braving a December snowstorm to oppose Bills 45 and 46.
Some people may believe this is a sign that the Wildrose is moving to the political centre, but they are no less of an ideological conservative party because of their opposition to these bills. The Wildrose’s opposition to Bills 45 and 46 is rooted in their libertarian beliefs and their entry into this debate is a testament to how unpopular and poorly written, and obviously unconstitutional, this legislation is.
Targeting sections 4(4) and 18(d) of Bill 45 which could limit free speech of ordinary Albertans, Mr. Anderson said his party would introduce amendments to the bill in order to protect the free speech rights. While it has been suggested in the mainstream media that “the new legislation … is designed in part to intimidate high-profile, labour affiliated bloggers such as Dave Climenhaga and Dave Cournoyer,” this law will apply to all Albertans.
As I wrote last week, according to Bill 45, any “person” who suggests that public sector employees strike or threaten to strike could be fined $500 and prosecuted within one year. The bill vaguely defines a “person” as someone who is not a government employee or trade union official, meaning that the $500 fine and prosecution could arguably apply to newspaper columnists, radio hosts, bloggers, or just ordinary Albertans who publicly suggest that unionized government employees participate in an illegal strike or consider taking illegal strike action.
While the opposition parties in the Assembly do not have sufficient numbers to stop these two pieces of legislation from becoming law, the Wildrose Party is playing a long-game.
The Wildrose Party is eager to make allies of the tens of thousands of public sector workers who played a key role in Ms. Redford’s leadership win in 2011 and election win in 2012, but now feel that the Premier has turned her back on them. Ms. Redford claimed to be a champion of progressive conservative values, leading many moderate conservative and liberal voters to lend their support to her Progressive Conservatives in last year’s election in order to block a victory by the Wildrose Party.
Since the election, Ms. Redford’s team has shown little gratitude to this important part of her winning coalition. Instead, they are imposing contracts and have arbitrarily implemented deep budget cuts on the colleges and universities that employ many of Alberta’s public sector workers.
By attacking a constitutionally protected right to free speech and by undermining Albertans’ right to a fair bargaining process, Ms. Redford’s Tories have, in the midst of a cold December on the prairies, managed to unite their political opponents on both the left and the right.