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Symbolic MLA pay cut sets stage for attack on public services -- so why did Alberta NDP support it?

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Thomas Dang, one of the NDP members of the Alberta legislature's member services committee (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Like neoliberals everywhere, Alberta's Conservatives overrate the virtues of big business and undervalue those of democracy. This is not exactly news.

This was a clear message yesterday from the vote of the legislature's member services committee to cut MLA salaries by 5 per cent, and twice that for the premier's pay. The vote illustrated nicely the United Conservative Party's contempt for the work of the legislature, which in the case of its own MLAs may be quite justified as they rubber-stamp tax cuts for billionaires and foreign corporations.

The pay cut also provided a convenient distraction from the twin embarrassments of the ongoing investigation into internal UCP corruption by the Office of the Election Commissioner and the judicial ruling that granted an injunction to a union seeking to block the government's effort to use legislation to break a legal contract.

But why did NDP MLAs like Thomas Dang who sit on the member services committee vote in favour of this policy and the damaging symbolic point it makes?

I mention Dang because he obviously spoke the truth when he told the committee that cutting "the pay of politicians a few hundred dollars a month to give them licence to screw over the working people of Alberta is frankly ridiculous." This is true even though committee chair and speaker Nathan Cooper ruled plain speaking in terms every Albertan can understand to be "unparliamentary."

Of course, there should be no surprise about Premier Jason Kenney going ahead with his campaign promises to cut the salaries of Alberta's MLAs while pouring billions into "job-creating" tax breaks for foreign fossil fuel corporations and local billionaires.

The pay cuts are purely symbolic. They won't save much money, and MLA compensation in this province was probably set about right to reflect the work and responsibilities of elected members. Mainstream economics, in addition, teach us the tax giveaways won't create many jobs, certainly not as many as would a similar investment in public services. The gains will mostly be used by corporations to buy back shares. In Premier Kenney's United Conservative Party, however, ideology always trumps factual analysis.

When the premier inevitably says "promise made, promise kept," though, who are we to argue with him? Albertans undeniably voted for this, no matter how damaging it turns out to be.

But why is the NDP lining up with what is obviously intended as a symbolic gesture to justify slashing the pay of Alberta's public employees as part of a more general policy of gutting public services?

This is a question worth pondering for those of us who voted for the NDP to protect our public services during what was obviously going to be a conservative government dogmatic in its commitment to austerity and extreme market fundamentalism. We're certainly entitled to ask it. After all, our votes, especially in the city of Edmonton, saved the NDP as a viable party in the legislature.

Of course, Dang made this point in the deliberations of this committee, when he identified the obvious motivation of the UCP for implementing the MLA pay cut. But so what? From the perspective of practical politics, what is important, and what will be remembered, is that the vote of the committee was unanimous. In addition to Dang, the MLA for Edmonton-South, the committee includes NDP MLAs Jasvir Deol, Edmonton-Meadows; Nicole Goehring, Edmonton-Castle Downs; and Heather Sweet, Edmonton-Manning.

According to Global News, "Opposition NDP members on the committee voted for the cut as the right thing to do, given Alberta's struggling oil and gas-based economy," which is a strange position to take for a party that just weeks ago was arguing with some justification that the economy was on the mend thanks to its stewardship.

Even if that position made sense, and even if political necessity drove it, the timing is terrible given Dang's accurate assessment of the UCP's motivation. But does anyone seriously believe that how NDP committee members voted yesterday will be a serious issue in the 2023 general election?

The NDP did their friends and supporters no favour with this vote.

Libraries next in line for hit as UCP channels Doug Ford

It looks like the UCP is about to cut public library funding. Now there's a shocker! Kenney, who boasts he completes Ontario Premier Doug Ford's sentences for him, is ripping pages out of the Ford playbook.

Ford, as readers will probably have forgotten, has a hate-on for public libraries, presumably in part because Margaret Atwood, the famous author, once bested him in public debate about this topic.

In Kenney's case, he's holding back on the real bad news until after the federal election so as not to upset federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer's applecart, at least not enough to be implicated in its rollover. In the meantime, he'll hold onto at least half the money.

Rural Alberta, where Kenney's most loyal supporters live, is likely to be hardest hit, as so often seems to happen to rural supporters of neoliberal demagogues.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca

Photo: David J. Climenhaga

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