Albertans got a first look at the Redford Government’s suspiciously timed public employee "restraint" legislation yesterday -- which effectively bans meaningful collective bargaining in the public sector and allows the province to impose agreements by fiat.
Many of them, of course, won't much care about Bill 45, the Public Sector Services Continuation Act, or Bill 46, the Public Services Salary Restraint Act, because they will be seen as not affecting them, and that will be true enough.
While the Progressive Conservative government of Premier Alison Redford obviously had intended to use its majority to ram through the two bills, it is likely they'd planned to do so at some point in the future, after negotiations with one or the other public service unions had become sticky enough for imprudent talk of illegal strike action to winkle its way into the public's consciousness.
So if the timing of this legislation showed signs of haste, it's no doubt because of the other pressing crisis the government faces -- the outrageous scandal about its failure to report the deaths of 89 children in care, mostly aboriginal, between 1999 and the present. In all, 145 foster children died, and it took a four-year legal fight by the Edmonton Journal and Calgary Herald to get at the records and discover the unreported tragedies.
This is an absolute disgrace, and it is said here the issue of children dying in care while the only thing successive Progressive Conservative governments could think about was covering their political behinds is simple enough on its face that any member of the voting public can understand it.
For this reason, it's a safe bet the Redford Government will do pretty well anything to prevent the shocking story from resulting in a public inquiry, as is now being demanded by Alberta’s opposition parties and many members of the public.
Far better to have a noisy public scrap with a group of public service unions, who face considerable disfavour among many Albertans, or so the government must have concluded before it hastily trotted out these two astonishing and arbitrary bills just a little early.
In that, the Redford Government's political assessment is probably right. Still, when viewed in context, Bills 45 and 46 raise a serious question for all Albertans, even those who don't like unions, to wit: Is the Redford Government completely out of control?
Remember that the government's decision circumvent free collective bargaining to help balance its budget on the backs of public sector workers, as well as its planned diminishment of the same workers' pensions presumably at least partly for the same reasons, did not happen in a vacuum.
Still, this attack on collective bargaining, replete with million-dollar-a-day fines, attacks on free speech and free association, and guilty-until-proven-innocent provisions is most certainly unconstitutional, at least if our constitution is worth the paper it's written on.
But that will take years and lots of money to establish, and in the mean time we will be stuck with a law that solves a problem that doesn't exist in the sense strikes by virtually all public employees, including direct civil servants and all public sector health care workers, are already illegal in Alberta.
The government's true problem is not actually the possibility of illegal strikes, which could always be dealt with through the application of completely defensible and undoubtedly popular back-to-work legislation and existing measures, but the compromise enshrined in its current public service labour relations laws.
To wit: While former premier Peter Lougheed deprived public employees of the right to strike in the event of an impasse in bargaining, in return they got access to a compulsory arbitration process. In other words, an arbitrator who looks at the facts, the laws and private-sector comparisons, and who then has the right to impose a settlement on both parties.
But arbitrators by definition are independent souls who don’t view themselves as being there to toady to government wishes, regardless of merit.
Indeed, arbitrators are bound to consider what people in the private sector who do similar work are paid -- which is plenty, in Alberta's still-overheated economy. And they might also consider the fact that if strikes by public employees are illegal, then the public services those employees are providing (and which Redford not long ago was elected by promising to preserve) must be valuable enough to attract a fair wage.
An arbitrator might even take into consideration the 71.5-per-cent pay increase Alberta's mostly PC MLAs awarded themselves in April 2013, which certainly puts their willingness to take their own three-year pay freeze in context. (In fairness, it was probably only about an instant 50-per-cent pay raise when you take adjustments in their committee pay into account, but still...)
In other words, the Redford Government's problem with the current state of affairs is that it doesn't trust its own arbitrators to give it the result it wants.
And after 42 years in power, this PC distrust of democratic institutions it can't tightly control runs very deep.
Consider: The Redford Government doesn't trust municipal governments very much either -- so it recently threatened councillors and mayors with jail time if they refused to play along with the regional governments the province is planning.
The Redford Tories dropped this idea when the government's own municipal farm team screamed bloody murder, but I think we can count on it the bad ideas set out in the recently abandoned Bill 28 will be back again soon enough in slightly modified form.
They don't trust teachers either, so last spring they legislated a teachers' contract when a few boards and ATA locals wouldn't toe the line.
Nor do they trust health regions any more -- so a previous PC government amalgamated them into a single entity, Alberta Health Services.
Alas, now they don't really trust AHS either -- so, when the 2008 structure didn't work as desired, Redford Health Minister Fred Horne fired the AHS board last June and now for all intents and purposes runs the health system directly himself.
Oh, and they don't trust post-secondary educational institutions either, so they have Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk hand out the budget orders for Alberta's universities, technical schools and colleges. And if they won't cooperate, he'll send in his own consultants.
And, it is said here, they most certainly don’t trust you, the voters of Alberta, as the fact they keep subverting, circumventing and overturning your democratic institutions by threats and unconstitutional legislation clearly shows.
So we now really need to ask ourselves: Who's next when they get done sorting out their own employees? Property owners? Members of regulated professions? Bloggers?
The answer to the first question -- are they out of control? -- should already be pretty obvious.
This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.
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