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Despite distraction from neocon flameouts, Redford Tory bumbling dominates Alberta's news

Even word that Tom Flanagan, the Icarus of Canada's neoconservative movement, had flown too close to the sun and was coming down to earth in flames was not enough to save Alberta's crisis-prone Progressive Conservative government from more pain!

One would have thought Premier Alison Redford would have been cheered when the principal architect of the Opposition Wildrose Party's brush with victory last April appeared at a seminar to defend users of child pornography and thereby assured his own political and professional demise.

After all, he was very nearly the cause of her party's destruction.

But instead, most local mainstream media continued to focus on the only-slightly-less-startling condemnation of Redford's Progressive Conservative Government by retired Justice John Vertes, head of the province's tightly controlled and far-from-independent inquiry into health system queue jumping. 

Local media also enthusiastically covered the education minister's (mis)use of teacher email addresses, especially the fact it is now being investigated by the Alberta Information and Privacy Commissioner, to try to bypass the collective bargaining process by negotiating directly with union members.

So despite whatever satisfaction they may have felt at Flanagan's long fall to earth, the neocon guru's very bad day Thursday didn't really offer the Redford Tories much respite from their self-inflicted troubles.

It was a different story in Ottawa, where Prime Minister Stephen Harper's so-called Conservatives went from rubbing their hands with glee at the morning prospect of tormenting the New Democrats over the defection of a Quebec MP to the Bloc Quebecois to playing embarrassing defence for Flanagan's outrageous commentary by mid-afternoon.

Getting back to Vertes' surprising accusation, the retired judge's charge that Health Minister Fred Horne was interfering with the Health Care Preferential Access Inquiry's independence, such as it is, was the most damaging blow to the government on the day Flanagan was flaming out.

On Thursday, Vertes said publicly at a session of the inquiry that Horne had refused to grant him the extra time he needed to properly probe the matter of health system queue jumping in Alberta, some instances of which have actually been uncovered by his efforts.

This was a dangerous moment for the government, it is said here. The government set up the inquiry with limited powers, headed by a judge who had retired from the bench, in order to avoid the risk of the independent and powerful judicial inquiry Redford had promised back when she was fighting for her political life.

But until Justice Vertes called Horne's bluff by speaking out at his own inquiry, there was every chance the Alberta public could have been fooled, or at least uninterested enough not to distinguish between a real judicial inquiry and a commission that reports to the health minister. 

By yesterday, Premier Redford had seemingly recognized the danger, undercut her minister and told the Canadian Press that if Vertes required more time, well, he should have it -- but, please, could he wrap up the inquiry by the end of April? Still, one wonders what Vertes threatened behind the scenes to get the job done.

Meanwhile, negotiations with the province's teachers continued to descend into recrimination and bitterness.

Also yesterday, it was revealed the government has all but declared war on teachers in an email sent by Education Minister Jeff Johnson to Alberta school trustees that stated: "Provincial negotiations are over. The incentives I offered are off the table. Further, be aware that any negotiated deals must include wage freezes for three years and no more than a 2 per cent increase in the fourth year. Anything else is simply not sustainable for our education system and will not be funded by government." 

It's hard to imagine what the government hopes to achieve with a tactic that is a textbook example of bargaining in bad faith and which is certain to inflame rank-and-file teachers, possibly enough to drive them to the picket lines.

For the time being, however, the Alberta Teachers Association has determined to respond like grownups to Johnson's provocation. They will launch an advertising campaign to make their case timed to coincide with next week's provincial budget, which if it’s effective will infuriate the government further.

Meanwhile, Information and Privacy Commissioner Jill Clayton launched her investigation of Johnson's earlier effort to spam 30,000 teachers with an official email that tried to go around their union bargaining committee.

Clayton's effort is directed at finding out how Johnson got the email addresses, which are supposed to be private, not if he used them in violation of the province's labour law -- a question that comes within the purview of the toothless and employer-friendly Alberta Labour Relations Board. 

For his part, Johnson maintained his first emails were a fine idea and he plans to continue sending them, then upped the ante with his inflammatory note to the trustees. This shot was reminiscent of his cabinet colleague Horne's maladroit handling of negotiations with the province’s doctors -- another fight that seems to have been left on the government's back burner for the moment.

Well, there's no defence like a good offence, one supposes, although that particular strategy will tend to keep the issue in the public eye, which in turn makes the government look ham-handed and incompetent.

So, notwithstanding the assistance unintentionally rendered to them by the elderly and possibly confused Flanagan, late of the University of Calgary and the Wildrose Party, the Redford Tories seem to be doing everything possible to ensure negative attention returns to them as quickly as possible.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.


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