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Will Alison Redford fire her labour minister? Don't count on it!

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Thomas Lukaszuk

In any normal business, Alberta Labour Minister Thomas Lukaszuk would be finished.

After the pummelling the government of Premier Alison Redford took on Friday from a Court of Queen's Bench judge for a law Lukaszuk and the low-profile cabinet wage-restraint committee he chairs had championed in the face of opposition within the Progressive Conservative cabinet, it's astonishing he's not been declared persona non grata in the Alberta Legislature Building.

But politics is not a normal business, and there are several reasons to believe Lukaszuk can weather the storm, despite his appalling performance.

There's no question Lukaszuk -- first as deputy premier, then after his demotion to labour minister late last year -- was the chief architect and prime mover of Bills 45 and 46, two pieces of anti-labour legislation so patently unconstitutional that Lieutenant Governor Don Ethell is rumoured to have almost gagged on them and considered making Alberta history by rejecting them as unconstitutional on their face.

Too bad the Lieutenant Governor didn't trust his instincts, if that’s indeed how he felt. He would have done the province a favour and been a hero to the masses. But that was then, as opposed to now.

Just two months ago, despite the warnings of some of the more rational minds in cabinet, Deputy Premier Dave Hancock in particular, the law imposing a wage freeze and contract on the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees and its companion piece, Bill 45, making advocacy of strikes by civil servants illegal for any citizen, apparently were seen as in cabinet as a real political coup.

Today, barely two months later, they are a colossal embarrassment -- especially in the wake of Mr. Justice Denny Thomas's fiercely worded dismissal Friday of Bill 46 as the heart of a high-handed, dishonest and manipulative strategy by the government to avoid bargaining in good faith with its 22,000 civil servants represented by AUPE. The bill provided a mechanism for the government to impose a wage freeze and inferior contract on AUPE by administrative command if the union didn't give in to a fake bargaining process.

While Lukaszuk is never directly named in Justice Thomas's ruling -- which granted AUPE an injunction indefinitely suspending Bill 46 until the union's challenge of its constitutionality can wend its way through the courts -- it must feel to the hot-headed labour minister as if he was right at the centre of the judicial bulls-eye. No doubt he is furious.

The legislation he fought for through the Public Sector Resource Committee has been exposed by the words of an independent and impartial superior court judge as prima facie evidence "Alberta did not meet its obligation to bargain in good faith," and further that the provincial government "never intended that the 2013 negotiations with AUPE were to be meaningful."

This leaves Premier Redford and the rest of her government in a horrible position -- unable to walk away from this legislation for fear she will appear to be flip-flopping, thought to be a deadly sin in Conservative circles, and facing difficulty living with what increasingly is becoming a political millstone around her neck.

Indeed, the injunction against Bill 46 granted to AUPE by Justice Thomas eliminates the huge tactical advantage the legislation gave the government in "bargaining" with the union and puts it under considerable pressure to reach a deal satisfactory to AUPE that might make the political embarrassment go away.

Back in the realm of rumour, Redford herself is said to flip from one side to the other as bitter debate over what to do about the bills rages in the cabinet chamber.

As was said in this space yesterday, even among voters who are not particularly sympathetic to unions, this fiasco is bound to raise doubts about the government's competence and its trustworthiness alike.

Yet it would appear there is no graceful way for the government to wiggle out of this trap of its own -- or, leastways, Lukaszuk's -- devising.

With little left to lose and a certain amount to gain, AUPE President Guy Smith called on Premier Redford Friday to fire Lukaszuk as labour minister.

Labour relations, Smith explained to reporters at the union's news post-injunction conference, "need nuance, relationships and finesse."

Lukaszuk, who is more aptly described as a loose canon on deck, offers none of those qualities.

Thanks to the labour minister’s thuggish approach, Smith observed, the relationship AUPE had built with the government over the decade before the passage on Dec. 11 of Bills 45 and 46 "is destroyed into the foreseeable future."

"In order to get this back on track," he said, the premier "needs to show some willingness to fix this broken relationship." And that, he explained pointedly, would mean withdrawing Bill 45, dropping the government's appeal of Bill 46 and shifting Lukaszuk out of the labour portfolio.

Notwithstanding the disaster Lukaszuk has wrought for his Progressive Conservative government, however, the conventional wisdom of politics is that even such an obvious demonstration a minister has reached the level of his incompetence ought not to result in movement back to a more congenial position.

This because it would appear too much like a flip-flop -- no matter what new disasters he perpetrates if he remains in the job.

Moreover, Redford no longer has the option of another cabinet shuffle without looking foolish -- in the last one, just days before Bills 45 and 46 were passed by the Legislature, she dumped Lukaszuk as deputy premier and skidded Doug Griffiths from the municipal affairs portfolio for having introduced legislation that would have allowed the government to jail municipal politicians who refused to cooperate with regional planning boards.

After that caused a brouhaha in the Wildrose Party's core constituency, Redford demoted Griffiths to the Service Alberta portfolio and quietly removed the legislation from the table.

Without the opportunity for another shuffle so soon after the last one, Hancock will likely be left to rail against Lukaszuk's excesses behind closed doors and make lame excuses for them in public.

The mercurial Lukaszuk will be ordered not to talk about his own destructive ideas, but he and his advisors and friends in anti-union circles will be able to continue to push them in private.

So the rest of us will all likely have to put up with Thomas A. Lukaszuk for a little while longer -- possibly even until voters have the opportunity take matters into their own hands in the spring of 2016.

At that point, he may be given an opportunity to demonstrate his capabilities in opposition -- a role to which a volatile person like Lukaszuk would be better suited than government. Or he may even be handed an opportunity to pursue other opportunities.

If it comes to that, one imagines he will not be alone.

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

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