When the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic first hit Alberta many months ago, Premier Jason Kenney was front-and-centre.
Ever the Anglophile, Kenney quoted Winston Churchill and compared the pandemic to the Battle of Britain. Under Kenney’s leadership we were going to fight COVID on the beaches, on the landing grounds, in the fields and in the streets.
He delivered a bleak televised address to Albertans, presented an awkward to watch 54-minute powerpoint display in an attempt to explain Alberta’s pandemic modelling, and elbowed his way to the front of Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw’s press conferences on a weekly basis. It was clear that he wanted Albertans to know he was their Commander-in-Chief in the war against the pandemic.
In one of his more notable comments, Kenney compared Albertans to a herd of buffalo that “move closely together and go into the storm head on, coming out of it faster, stronger, and united.”
But at some point over the summer, as new cases of COVID dropped into the teens and single digits, Kenney shifted gears. He stopped showing up at Dr. Hinshaw’s press conferences and his government ostensibly shifted toward an economic recovery message. But in reality the UCP government began a game of catch-up after the pandemic delayed the United Conservative Party‘s political agenda by five-months – a political agenda designed for a pre-pandemic Alberta.
The glorious battle was over and it was time for Kenney’s government to resume its multi-front war with nurses, doctors and health care workers.
A sensible political leader would appreciate that picking a very public fight with health care workers in the middle of a global pandemic is a bad way to run a government. But despite his falling approval ratings, Kenney appears to be moving forward as if everything has returned to normal. It clearly hasn’t.
Now the second wave of COVID-19 has hit Alberta. Dr. Hinshaw reported 800 new cases today, shattering previous records. The public health care system is showing signs of strain as nurses and health care workers are over-worked and understaffed, and COVID outbreaks are being reported at hospitals around the province.
The beaches are being stormed, but, unlike eight months ago, Kenney is no longer showing up at Dr. Hinshaw’s press conferences, confidently quoting Churchill or comparing Albertans to buffalo stampeding together through a thunder storm.
As conservative partisans gather at the Westin Hotel near the Calgary International Airport tonight for the United Conservative Party annual general meeting, thousands of public sector workers are wondering whether they will have a job next year.
Despite promising during the election not to cut front-line services, it appears that today was the day that Premier Jason Kenney chose to break that promise, giving a new meaning to Black Friday for many Alberta workers.
This does not include layoffs of teachers by school boards reacting to lower than expected education funding in the provincial budget. The Calgary Board of Education announced last week that it expects to layoff 300 teachers as a results of the UCP budget. And about 90 government lawyers are expected to be laid-off by the Department of Justice, representing about 37 per cent of the lawyers working in the government’s Legal Services branch.
From hospitals to lab services to schools, these kind of layoffs will undoubtably impact frontline workers and the delivery of the excellent public services that Albertans depend upon every day.
The layoffs are expected to take place over the next three years, but this latest development comes one week after the government seized control of public sector pension funds and moved to rollback wages of public sector workers.
Unlike some previous conservative leaders in Alberta, who saw a positive role for government and public services in society, Kenney and the team of advisors surrounding him are committed to an ideological project that is bigger than just balancing the provincial budget. They want to reshape Alberta in a more free-market and individualist image that includes increased privatization of all government services and a much more combative relationship with public sector workers and the unions that represent them.
Business leaders at an exclusive Lake Louise conference today warned that ‘a declining and outdated industry, a lack of innovation and a fascination with separation’ is hurting Alberta’s image. Mary Moran, CEO of Calgary Economic Development, told the meeting that ongoing environmental criticism, delays in building oil pipelines and a surge of separatist sentiment recently led a major technology company to decide not to relocate its office to Calgary.
Kenney responded that he had not heard such criticism when he met with business owners in Houston last week. The list of people Kenney met with while he was in Texas has not been released to the public, but it is likely they are aware of the growing list of investment banks and pension funds that are divesting from the oil and gas because of that industry’s contribution to climate change.
But do not expect that to stop the UCP government, which continues to move at a breakneck speed implementing its political programme. Kenney may still have a lot of political capital to spend, but many Alberta workers will remember this Black Friday, when they discovered that his promises to them weren’t worth much more than the coroplast sign he made them on.
“The $15 minimum wage will make life more affordable for women, single parents, families and everyone who has been working a full-time job or more but is still struggling to put food on the table and pay their rent,” Labour Minister Christina Gray said in a September 28 press release.
According to the Alberta Low Wage Profile, the number of employees with average hourly earnings of less than $15 per hour in Alberta decreased from 292,400 in 2016 to 253,900 in 2018. The profile also shows that Alberta has the lowest percentage of low wage earners among the Canadian provinces, followed by Saskatchewan.
The phased-in increase to minimum wage is a challenge that business owners who pay poverty level wages had been forced to confront. And not surprisingly, business owners and their lobby groups have taken issue with the increases since they began after 2015.
Some business owners have warned that pay increases could lead to increased costs for consumers. There is no doubt that an increase to the minimum wage will increase costs for employers, but I am sure they have already found many Albertans will not mind paying a little bit more knowing that the employees who serve their coffee, prepare their lunches, or stock their grocery store shelves are paid better than they were last month.
Mandel went into detail with his proposal to lower the minimum wage for certain Alberta workers, lowering the rate to $13.60 an hour for workers 17 and under and to $14 an hour for servers who earn tips.
It makes little sense to penalize or devalue the work of the lowest paid workers in Alberta because of their age or the industry they work in. This kind of thinking presumes that most young workers are just earning pocket money to buy V-Bucks for Fortnite and not saving to pay for post-secondary education, helping pay the bills at home or trying to raise their own families.
Around 63 per cent of minimum wage earners are women, more than 37 per cent of minimum wage earners are parents, including around 14,300 who are single parents.
A pay cut for low wage workers could be part of Bill 1: The Free Enterprise Act, which Mandel announced at a gathering of the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce earlier this month would be the first law passed by an Alberta Party government. He was mum on what else would be included in this bill, but as the NDP have already lowered the small business tax rate from 3 per cent to 2 per cent, it is possible Mandel would like to see the tax completely abolished.
Kenney initially played coy on the topic, saying he had no plans to roll back the $15 per hour wage but in a speech to the Calgary Chamber of Commerce last week he went into detail about his willingness to adopt a system of lower minimum wages based on age or industry.
While Kenney was not specific about how far be would roll back wages for young workers, recent UCP leadership candidate Doug Schweitzer, who is now the party’s star candidate in Calgary-Elbow, said last year that he would cut Alberta’s minimum wage by 18.7 per cent from $15 per hour to $12.20 per hour, because it is the “right choice for Albertans whose livelihoods count on it the most.”
Kenney also stated he plans to repeal labour law reforms implemented by the NDP, which updated many Alberta laws not changed since the 1970s. It is not clear whether this would include the occupational health and safety code updates, or other changes expanding compassionate care leave, maternal and paternal leave, holiday pay, and the clarification of termination and temporary layoff rules.
Support staff including educational and financial assistants, library clerks, maintenance staff, secretaries, typists and custodians who work for the Living Waters Catholic School District in Edson, Whitecourt and Slave Lake are on strike because they were fed up with irregular working hours and low salaries. Some staff members have been turning to their local food bank to make ends meet, according to the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, the union representing these workers.
The $15 per hour minimum wage was a step in the right direction, but it is still lower than the what is considered to be a living wage in some of Alberta’s urban areas.Vibrant Communities Calgary estimated in 2017 that the Living Wage in Calgary is $18.15 per hour, the Edmonton Social Planning Council says a living wage in the province’s capital city is $16.31 per hour, the City of Grande Prairie estimated $17.35 per hour, while in 2016 Central Alberta Poverty estimated that the living wage in Red Deer and Central Alberta was between $13.71 and $14.10 per hour.
Increasing the minimum wage is not a silver bullet to eliminating poverty in our province, but raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour will make a big difference in the lives of a lot of working Albertans.
While the current crop of conservative political leaders have decried the wage increase for Alberta’s lowest paid workers, conservative politicians in the recent past have praised increases to the minimum wage:
“This increase to Alberta’s minimum wage is good news for Albertans,” said Premier Ed Stelmachin June 2007, when the minimum wage was raised from $7 per hour to $8 per hour.
”Minimum wage offers protection for workers,” said Minister of Employment, Immigration and Industry Iris Evans, also in June 2007. “It sets the minimum rate of pay that employers must meet and ensures that workers, especially women and youth, who traditionally are in the lower income occupations, are making a better wage.”
“We want to ensure that Albertans earning the minimum wage are as protected as possible during these changing times,” Minister of Employment and Immigration Hector Goudreau said in March 2009, when the minimum wage increased from $8.40 per hour to $8.80 per hour.
In November 2004, Premier Ralph Klein appointed Innisfail-Sylvan Lake MLA Luke Ouellette as Alberta’s only-ever Minister of Restructuring and Government Efficiency.Known by the nickname the “Ministry of RAGE,” the department quickly became an oxymoronic joke because was a government bureaucracy created for the purpose of cutting government’s bureaucracy.
Aside from some responsibilities related to the Alberta SuperNet that were previously handled by another government department, it was never clear what exactly the RAGE Ministry ever accomplished. And before Albertans could ever find out, the position was eliminated and, in December 2006, Ouellette was appointed Minister of Infrastructure and Transportation.
History will show that the Ministry of Restructuring and Government Efficiency was most notable for eliminating the Office of the Minister of Restructuring and Government Efficiency.
The Alberta Liberal Party held its annual general meeting in Red Deer this weekend where the party elected its executive officers, including a name that will be familiar to government-watchers in Alberta.
Known as ‘Buff‘ by those in the labour movement, the former jail guard served as president of Alberta’s largest union from 1997 to 2006. He led AUPE’s recovery from the brutal public sector job cuts of the mid-1990s and doubled the union’s membership over the course of his nine years as president.
Also elected to the Liberal Party executive board were Karen Sevcik as President, David Khan as Executive Vice-President, John Roggeveen as Vice-President Fundraising, Alyssa Moore as Secretary, Greg Springate as Treasurer, and David Gamble as Vice-President Policy.
One year ago, the PC Party was on verge of meltdown as Alison Redford resigned as leader and Premier. Since then, the political landscape has shifted so dramatically that the only significant thing that remains the same is the PC Party is still in government and will almost certainly extend its 44 year reign in the upcoming spring election.
Jim Prentice is being praised as a saviour by conservatives for turning around his party’s electoral fortunes, but he is no magician. Like each of his predecessors over the past 44 years, Mr. Prentice’s goal is to ensure the PC Party remains in government. And also like these predecessors, he is succeeding.
Introduced into the Assembly by former minister Dave Hancock, the unnecessary and probably unconstitutional Bill 45 was part of Ms. Redford’s attack on public sector workers. The bill was passed with the support of 33 PC MLAs and one Wildrose MLA in December 2013 but was never proclaimed into law (five Wildrose MLAs, two New Democrats and one Liberal voted against it). If made into law, it would have significantly increased the fines for public sector strikes and made it illegal for any person to publicly suggest that government employees take job action.
The bill also appeared to give significant powers to the Minister of Human Services to issue fines to government employees if there has even been a hint of discussion about an illegal strike or strike threat.
Killing Bill 45 is only one step in repairing the government’s damaged relationship with its front-line workers. Five months ago, Mr. Prentice said he found low morale and high turnover in the public service “shocking.” But with Finance Minister Robin Campbell warning of 9 percent across the board funding cuts in next week’s provincial budget, it is difficult to see how Mr. Prentice plans to change this situation.
It remains embarrassing that so many of our elected officials supported this bill, but today Mr. Prentice deserves some kudos for committing to repeal Bill 45.
Wildrose Party leadership candidates Drew Barnes, Brian Jean and Linda Osinchuk will be guests on the next AbVote Google Hangout on Tuesday, March 24, 2015. Tune in to abvote.ca at 7:00 p.m. and ask questions to the candidates using the #abvote hashtag on Twitter.
With the four provincial by-elections over, the focus will soon turn back to nominating candidates to stand in Alberta’s next general election. The next election is scheduled to be held sometime between March 1 and May 31, 2016, but can be called earlier if premier requests the Lieutenant Governor to issue a writ of election.
Blast from the past? Two defeated Progressive Conservatives MLAs are not ruling out a return to politics in the next election. Former Cypress-Medicine Hat PC MLA Len Mitzel, who was defeated by Wildrose candidate Drew Barnes in 2012, told the Medicine Hat News he has not ruled out a comeback in 2016. And in Drumheller-Stettler, former Infrastructure Minister and registered lobbyist Jack Hayden is said to be mulling a 2016 bid. Mr. Hayden was unseated by Wildroser Rick Strankman in 2012.
Calgary-Bow The Wildrose nomination in this west Calgary constituency has been set aside as a open spot for a candidate to be appointed by leader Danielle Smith. Rumours have been circulating for some time that Ms. Smith is working hard to recruit Canadian Taxpayer Federation spokesperson Derek Fildebrandtas the Wildrose candidate in Calgary-Bow. Mr. Fildebrandt is an outspoken critic of the PC Government and has targeted Premier Jim Prentice with FOIP requests dating back to his time in Ottawa.
Both Alberta Party leader Greg Clark and Liberal candidate Susan Wrighthave declared their intentions to seek their parties nominations to run in the next provincial election. In the recent by-election held on Oct. 27, Mr. Clark placed a close second with 26.94% of the vote. Ms. Wright placed fourth with 11.99%.
On September 30, Heather Sweet was acclaimed as the NDP candidate in this northeast Edmonton constituency. Ms. Sweet is a registered social worker working in child protection and is member of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees’ Committee On Political Action.
The NDP are holding a nomination meeting on November 5, 2014 in this southwest Edmonton constituency. Former City Council candidate and social work instructor Richard Feehan and 2012 candidate Melanie Samaroden are running for the nomination.
Construction company manager Greg Tymchyna is seeking the Wildrose Party nomination in this northwest Alberta constituency. Now living in Grande Prairie, Mr. Tymchyna is also a homeowner in High River, where he is part of a legal battle seeking more compensation from the provincial government for flood damaged homes.
Lesser Slave Lake
Registered Nurse Danielle Larivee has been nominated as the NDP candidate in this rural northern Alberta constituency. Ms. Larivee is the President of the United Nurses of Alberta Local in Slave Lake.
Lethbridge-East Kris Hodgson has tweeted his plans to seek the New Democratic Party nomination in this southern Alberta urban constituency. Mr. Hodgson is a Lethbridge College journalism instructor and president of Allied Arts Council. Earlier in the summer, Lethbridge College political scientist and former city councillor Faron Ellisdeclared his candidacy for the Wildrose Party nomination.
The NDP are holding a nomination meeting on November 12, 2014. Paramedic Jason Soklofske is expected to be acclaimed. Mr. Soklofske is a southern representative with the Health Sciences Association of Alberta and, according to his online biography, chairs that union’s political action committee.
Businessman Brian Tiessendefeated Strathcona County Councillor Vic Bidzinski to become the Wildrose Party candidate in this constituency east of Edmonton. Mr. Bidzinski’s political past, as a Liberal candidate in the 1997 federal election, drew confused reactions from some local Wildrose supporters.
West Yellowhead Stuart Taylor was acclaimed as the Wildrose Party candidate in West Yellowhead. As the party’s candidate in the 2012 election, Mr. Taylor placed second with 26.91%. The constituency is currently represented by Finance Minister Robin Campbell, who was first elected in 2008.
At 3:00 p.m. on the same day, AUPE President Guy Smith took to the podium at a press conference to announce that, after a long and tumultuous process, his union had reached a tentative agreement with the provincial government for a new contract (here are the details of the tentative agreement).
Contrasting the current and previous premier, Mr. Smith praised Premier Dave Hancock for working with him to find a resolution to the acrimonious round of negotiations. In the same breath which Mr. Smith heaped glowing praise on Mr. Hancock, he delivered a harsh shot at Labour minister Thomas Lukaszuk, who he said played no role in achieving this resolution.
“We are prepared to rebuild the relationship with the government that is needed to ensure that Albertans get the quality services they deserve,” Mr. Smith said in AUPE’s press release.
By reaching a tentative agreement and abandoning the fight to salvage an unpopular law (which was likely unconstitutional), the governing Progressive Conservatives hope to avoid a nasty and very public battle with AUPE over bargaining that could have been drawn out over the course their leadership race. They may also hope this agreement could derail AUPE’s informal alliance with Danielle Smith‘s Wildrose opposition, which threatened to dog the Tories into the next election.
It is perhaps not surprising that Mr. Hancock, whose dedication to his party in unquestioned, would wish to put this issue to rest before the next PC leader leader, possibly Jim Prenticeor Ken Hughes, is chosen at that party’s September leadership vote.
At least for the moment, Albertans can have hope that the current premier may take a more mature approach to labour relations than we saw under the province’s previous leadership.
Settling the negotiations with the province’s largest union was a sensible decision and the beginning of a detente at best. But if the Tories hope this announcement is a first step in creating an entente cordiale with Alberta’s labour movement and progressive voters, there is still a long way to go (backing down on the attack on public sector pensions would be another meaningful next step they could take).