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Finance minister's joint news conference with civil service union leader sure looked like total climb-down

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Guy Smith & Doug Horner

There's no question, after a year of something approaching total warfare between the Government of Alberta and its civil service union, it was unnerving to see Alberta Union of Provincial Employees President Guy Smith and Finance Minister Doug Horner sharing the same podium at a joint news conference yesterday morning.

The backstory for the public? Former premier Alison Redford is gone, taking her war on public employees with her. It was all a misunderstanding. Everyone wants the same thing. Reconciliation rules.

The official reason for the news conference? To acknowledge the need to "hit the pause button," in the words of Horner's news release, on two bills that would have allowed the government to gut 300,000 public sector employees' and retirees' pensions and create similar havoc in the private sector, and to recognize, in the words of Smith's, the need "to rebuild a respectful relationship" between the government and public employees.

The reality? An almost total climb-down by the Hancock Government, cornered and fearful of the wrath of voters, on the signature policy of its predecessor government under Redford, who was removed from the premiership by shaken Progressive Conservative MLAs in a caucus coup in March.

Horner, unsurprisingly, insisted the PC Government wasn't climbing down from anything, and the AUPE president went along with that fiction.

"It's not a matter of whether we're backing down or not, it's matter of process," Horner told the reporters in the Legislature's tiny media centre with apparent logic. "This should not be taken as a sign we are about to abandon what we believe to be sound public sector policy."

But abandonment of the policy is exactly what is all but certain to happen. The Redford Government campaign to gut public sector pensions has been ended by Hancock and it will never be back in a recognizable form.

On Monday, the all-party Standing Committee on Alberta's Economic Future was handed the job of reviewing Bill 9, the Public Sector Pension Plans Amendment Act, 2014, and Bill 10, the Employment Pension (Private Sector) Plans Amendment Act, 2014, after an agreement by the government caucus and all three Opposition parties.

When the committee has held its hearings and made its recommendations, count on it that any pension reform policy that emerges will contain only a few cosmetic references to government policies of old, and will look an awful lot more like what Alberta's public sector unions have been demanding.

With all his talk yesterday about "rebuilding the relationship" and promises of "an open, honest, respectful dialogue" about pensions, it seems jarring that only last September Horner was warning public sector unions the Redford Government had made its decision and their choice was to submit or be made to submit. If they wanted a fight, he told them with a smirk on Sept. 16, he was happy to oblige.

Back then, the government appeared to hold all the cards. But that was before an effective campaign by members of all affected public service unions shook many Tory MLAs who won narrowly in 2012, and an unexpected ruling by a Court of Queen's Bench judge derailed the government's labour strategy by granting AUPE an injunction against a law that would have imposed a contract on the union’s civil service members.

So Horner got his fight and, yesterday, it looked very much as if he'd lost it.

The line of the day went to NDP Leader Brian Mason, who was asked by a reporter after the official news conference if he really believed the government was making a sincere effort to rebuild its relationship with AUPE. "This is a sincere effort to avoid electoral defeat," snapped Mr. Mason, to the chuckles of the reporters in the room.

While détente between public service unions and the PC government is good for both parties and for Alberta, Mason said, it came about because "the government realized they were in a lot of trouble" and because candidates for the leadership likely didn't want to continue a needless fight picked by Redford that was hurting the government.

"The agenda of the government has been dominated by attacks on its own employees," said Mason, obviously feeling free to say what he really thinks with his own planned retirement from leadership less than half a year away. "In my view, it was a suicide mission. It has been rectified -- perhaps too late."

Strictly between AUPE and the government, look for settlements to several irritants that have bedevilled that union before the PCs choose their new leader. These could include an end to the continuing fallout from the Correctional Officers' strike last June, the lifting of legal restrictions on what AUPE can arbitrate in civil service contract negotiations with the government and a mutually agreeable end to the pension fight.

Smith's decision to share the podium with Horner was controversial with some labour activists, especially since many leaders of other public sector unions were out of town at the Canadian Labour Congress convention in Montreal. Once burnt, twice shy, there's a real fear among many that the PCs can never be trusted again. But given yesterday's performance, it's hard to imagine the Hancock Government won't extend the olive branch to other unions that have the same issues with Bill 9. 

Indeed, Horner made this explicit yesterday, urging the other public sector unions to make presentations to the all-party committee and promising, "we're open to that discussion … It's not just the AUPE. We're talking about all the other unions."

Even the Twitter stream of cranky Labour Minister Thomas Lukaszuk, who seems to have been left out of the negotiations with AUPE, has lately taken a startling turn toward sweetness and light.

For the moment, the only remaining vestiges of Redford's policies are overenthusiastic public sector employers still reading from the previous week's labour relations playbook and the expensive and unworkable recommendation of a task force on teaching set up in the bad old days of confrontation that provocatively calls for teachers to be forced to prove their competence in government tests administered every five years. 

This too seems like a non-starter as the Hancock Tories try desperately to push the reset button on the entire past two years.

+ + +

Ric McIver poised to join Tory leadership race today, newspaper says

Another Tory leadership candidate is "poised" to launch a campaign, the Calgary Herald reports. 

The Herald said yesterday Calgary MLA and just-resigned infrastructure minister Ric McIver will formally join former Municipal Affairs Minister Ken Hughes in the race today. Similarly poised Finance Minister Doug Horner promised to make his announcement on Friday during yesterday's joint news conference with AUPE. 

Labour Minister Thomas Lukaszuk, just assigned a grade of F for his ministerial performance in the May 2014 edition of Alberta Views Magazine, is poised as well, as are a couple of others in and out of caucus. 

But the strategy of all the aforementioned candidates seems mainly to be to ensure they can hang onto a portfolio in the cabinet of the party's official Enlightened Being and Anointed One, banker and former federal Tory cabinet minister Jim Prentice.

Prentice, who is so precipitously poised it's almost as if he has already toppled into the race, will make his announcement when he is good and ready.

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

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