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Forget tough talk on public sector salaries for now, another legislative pillar of the Redford government topples

Robin Campbell, Jim Prentice & Ric McIver

Flanked by Finance Minister Robin Campbell and Labour Minister Ric McIver, Alberta Premier Jim Prentice yesterday marked the first anniversary of Alison Redford's announcement she would step down as premier by declaring he intends to repeal another of the signature pieces of legislation from her brief tenure at the top.

Is there any legislation left from the Redford Era for Prentice to repudiate? Precious little. The de-Redfordization process is very nearly complete.

Prentice, wearing a nice necktie of blue, white and NDP orange, opened a private meeting at Edmonton's Government House with a group of public service union leaders by announcing the Legislature would immediately repeal Bill 45, the Public Sector Services Continuation Act, which was probably the most egregious legislative act of the Redford Government.

In both private and public yesterday, after days of talking tough on controlling salary costs, the premier struck a conciliatory tone with the union leaders. A new era of mutual respect is about to begin, both sides pledged.

Nobody, it now seems, liked Bill 45 very much -- except Redford, her sometime deputy premier and labour minister, Thomas Lukaszuk, her finance minister, Doug Horner, and her immediate successor as premier, Dave Hancock, who as human services minister was the bill's sponsor. And to tell you the truth, I don’t think Hancock liked it all that much either, but he was a good soldier.

If you look carefully at that list of names, you will note that all of them are gone from political life except for Lukaszuk, whose political future looks as dubious as an Edmonton commuter bridge.

Bill 45, a blatantly unconstitutional piece of legislation that simply could not have withstood a court challenge (and one is still under way, for the moment anyway) was the heart of what passed for a public sector labour relations strategy in Redford's government.

Its fundamental constitutional problem was that it openly outlawed free speech by any citizen who wanted to speak in favour of an illegal strike in the Alberta public sector -- where essentially all strikes are illegal. But its reliance on brute force to enforce a blanket ban on public sector strikes contained in other laws and the outlandish fines imposed on unions and their members without recourse to the processes of natural justice had the potential to poison public sector labour relations in Alberta for generations.

Bill 46, a companion piece of Redford legislation also passed in December 2013 and subsequently excoriated by a superior court judge, attempted to allow the government to circumvent collective bargaining with its own civil servants.

Prentice had already repealed that one in October 2014 -- although it had been rendered meaningless by the contract agreement in April 2014 between the Hancock Government and the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees.

In January this year, the Supreme Court of Canada reaffirmed that the right of all working people, including public employees, to strike is constitutionally protected and, as such, many of Alberta's laws that ban strikes are almost certainly rendered unconstitutional. This certainly added an extra burden to the challenge faced by Bill 45 in the courts, which in turn may have been the reason it has never been proclaimed by the government.

So at the end of yesterday’s meeting, which had been sought by some of the labour leaders in attendance, Prentice emphasized to the public the conciliatory tone he had taken behind closed doors, and also told the media the government would rewrite labour laws with the instructions of the court in mind.

"This is not about rolling back contracts," he told reporters. "It's about working together to define solutions as we go forward that reflect the fiscal circumstances we’re in.

"We recognize that prior to my becoming the premier, contracts were negotiated, had been signed with different unions. Clearly they have to be respected. We cannot roll back what was previously agreed to."

"Repealing Bill 45 is a clear indication that we want to work with our public sector workers to develop legislation that ensures fairness for all," said McIver -- whose full title is minister of jobs, skill, training and labour -- in the government's press release. Like Campbell, he was silent at the newser. Last fall, the Prentice Government also allowed pension legislation unpopular with public sector workers to die when the House was prorogued.

If the premier's intention is to reboot his government's relationship with public sector unions because their co-operation will be required if his program is to fully succeed, killing off Bill 45 was the right thing to do, practically and symbolically.

If it was merely to make a virtue of necessity, that was still a significant improvement from the stewardship of Redford, who didn't seem to realize that governments in this country need to pay attention to what the Supreme Court says, not to mention voters.

Either way, I imagine many of the people in the room, regardless of which side of the table they were sitting at, will be praying to their choice of Almighty for a swift return to high oil prices.

Now, don't look at me to yell at the premier about this. He just took the advice I've been giving him for months!

Campbell is expected to table a budget next Thursday, March 26. Don't expect the level of detail normally seen in a provincial Budget Speech, however. The premier is likely to call an election right after that and a certain degree of vagueness in his post-election financial plans will probably be necessary, even with his popularity still at a healthy 43 per cent.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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