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Canadian Taxpayers Federation skewed commentary on nurse salaries is an echo chamber

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L-R: Terry O'Flynn (Alberta Enterprise Group), Rick More (Red Deer & District Chamber of Commerce), Finance Minister Travis Toews, Todd MacKay (Canadian Taxpayers Federation), Sandip Lalli (Calgary Chamber of Commerce) and Janet M. Riopel (Edmonton Chamber of Commerce). Image: Government of Alberta/Flickr

Has anyone noticed how the propaganda produced by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF) seems to be growing more inept of late?

Misleading arguments and anti-union bias have long characterized many of the claims made by the Regina-based CTF, which claims to be a non-partisan "citizens' group," although its only legal members are in fact the five members of its board, making it a classic example of an astroturf organization.

Back in the day, though, a reader could be reasonably confident the organization's data were accurate, even if its conclusions were unsound.

Not so much any more. A recent CTF publication purporting to show "Alberta taxpayers are paying for inflated health-care salaries and benefits" illustrates this point.

The document looks like advance work done of behalf of Alberta's United Conservative Party government to soften up the public for the announcement this week by Finance Minister Travis Toews that he intends to roll back public employees' salaries and benefits, including those of registered nurses.

Just for starters, the CTF document published earlier this month overstated by more than $18,000 per year the top salary earned by registered nurses under United Nurses of Alberta's collective agreement. I guess that helps if you want to argue that registered nurses are paid too much, but it doesn't seem like the best way to go if you want your argument to hold up for long.

The correct numbers, by the way, are easy to find: they're on page 287 of the current UNA collective agreement with Alberta Health Services and other health-care employers, a public document available online and from the Alberta Labour Relations Board. (Full disclosure: I work for UNA and a copy of the collective agreement lies atop my desk.)

In addition, as UNA's labour relations director David Harrigan told CTV News in response to the CTF's claims, "25 out of 29 footnotes in the CTF document cite the MacKinnon Report's statistical appendix, with the others citing such questionable sources as the Fraser Institute and the CTF itself." In other words, this isn't research so much as an echo chamber, explicitly set up to amplify the CTF's arguments.

The MacKinnon report, of course, was the risible document created for the Alberta government to justify its budget-cutting plans by former Saskatchewan finance minister Janice MacKinnon and a small group of economists, senior officials and business people handpicked to deliver the recommendations desired by Premier Jason Kenney (a former CTF president) and Toews for last Thursday's budget.

Franco Terrazzano, the CTF Alberta "director" who drafted the report, seems to have relied heavily and uncritically on the claims made by the MacKinnon panel.

The CTF document ignored the findings of Statistics Canada that average salaries for all classes of employment are higher in Alberta than anywhere else in Canada.

On that point, while the CTF document didn't include this calculation, the salary differential between what nurses are paid in Alberta and Manitoba that the CTF highlighted comes to about 22 per cent.

So what would Statistics Canada say about this shocking news? Well, according to the national statistical agency, the across-the-board difference in average weekly earnings including overtime between Alberta and Manitoba in 2018 was … 23 per cent.

So, one would think, 22 per cent sounds about right. No one, even a CTF researcher seemingly working hand in glove with Alberta's United Conservative Party government, should have been particularly shocked.

By the way, if you exclude overtime, the difference in average weekly earnings in 2018 between Alberta and Manitoba was 21 per cent.

A professional researcher of my acquaintance notes that when both the MacKinnon panel and the CTF compared compensation in Canada and other jurisdictions, they created a category that excludes Alberta, a bit of legerdemain designed to exaggerate any differences between Alberta and the rest of the country.

When Statistics Canada and responsible researchers make the same kind of comparison, by contrast, they usually measure compensation in one province against values for the country as a whole that include all provinces.

Moreover, as Harrigan noted, when the CTF researcher resentfully compared private-sector and public-sector salaries in Alberta, he failed to note that because of market conditions the demand for oil and gas employees in Alberta and other jurisdictions has declined.

By contrast, demand for health-care professionals has increased worldwide, and this at a time when Alberta is already facing a shortage of registered nurses.

RNs are members of a regulated medical profession who nowadays must complete a four-year degree and a difficult professional exam to practice. According to Alberta Health Services, RNs "play a key leadership role in the delivery of an integrated and holistic approach to client health care, health promotion and health maintenance requirements. They provide expert knowledge, guidance and mentorship to students and other health-care workers."

So when groups like the CTF target the wages earned by registered nurses to help the government of Alberta justify its pay-cutting plans, they need to remember RNs are the backbone of the health-care system, and not just in Alberta.

If the CTF wishes to see to lower average pay in Alberta for everyone except corporate bosses, which appears to this reader to be its objective, they might not want to start by targeting RNs. After all, there's a worldwide market anxious for their skills out there that's willing to pay them what they're worth.

One would also have thought that an organization like the CTF, dogmatically devoted to the superiority of market economies and dogged in its advocacy of "market solutions," would have recognized that market conditions play a role in what certain categories of workers can expect to be paid in a market economy.

Apparently not. One wonders why.

Perhaps it's because what the CTF, with many well-established connections to anti-union individuals and groups, just can't stand public service unions.

Maybe it's because even though it claims to be a non-partisan organization, it's an important part of the ecosystem of support for both Kenney's UCP government and the federal Conservative Party in Ottawa.

Who knows? Whatever the reason is, readers are advised to take CTF "reports" with a healthy dose of skepticism.

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.

Image: Government of Alberta/Flickr

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