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Opposition parties strangely quiet as Alberta Finance Minister stops the ABC Sector gravy train

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Alberta Finance Minister Joe Ceci at Friday's newser (Screenshot of GoA video)

Being a conservative in opposition apparently turns what your Mama taught you on its head: If you can't say anything bad, don't say anything at all!

That would be one explanation for the spooky silence from Alberta's Wildrose Opposition and the usual suspects on the right about Finance Minister Joe Ceci's announcement Friday he was pulling the plug on millions in pay and perks for executives at 23 Alberta agencies, boards and commissions -- part of the so-called ABC Sector.

You'd think this would have pleased the opposition. After all, just three weeks ago they were screaming that the NDP Government of Premier Rachel Notley must freeze the pay of front-line nurses, health care workers, teachers and civil servants who will be negotiating new collective agreements this year.

Back then, in an official statement, the Wildrose Party called a mediator's recommendation of raises ranging for 29 cents to 88 cents an hour for 14,000 health care aides and licensed practical nurses represented by the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees "a slap in the face to struggling Albertans."

Some of those health care workers are currently being paid less than $20 an hour. Freezing their salaries for 2016 as the Wildrosers demanded would have saved the provincial treasury about $8 million.

By contrast, on Friday, the cuts made to the sometimes outrageous pay and perks of only about 270 ABC Sector executives -- a hangover from the days when the ABCs served in part as a lush pasture for old Tory warhorses -- will save taxpayers roughly double that.

Now, it would be entirely consistent for the Opposition to say, "good step, but not far enough." Or even, "it was about time they stopped the gravy train!" Instead? Pretty much crickets.

There was nary a quote from the PCs (who are responsible for most of the executive pay rates to which Ceci took his axe), the Wildrosers (who are after all the Official Opposition) or the Canadian Taxpayers Federation (Canada's self-described and routinely quoted tax watchdog) in any mainstream media report I noticed.

In fact, the only mention of the Progressive Conservatives in any of the media coverage seemed to be Ceci’s mild comment that "for far too long, the previous government allowed CEO salaries to balloon beyond reasonable levels at our agencies, boards and commissions despite recommendations by the Auditor General to rein them in."

"Instead, they sat by while some executives got big raises," Ceci observed during his news conference. "I’m here to say that those days of standing by are over."

As for the Opposition, "Wildrose voiced no objections," was all an official of that party told me, a kind of backhanded approval in itself. The PCs appear to have been completely silent.

The CTF did better. "This is a good baby step," CTF Alberta spokesperson Paige MacPherson responded to my query. "If the government is willing to address compensation to reduce spending, it makes sense to start at the top. … At the same time, Minister Ceci would not commit to pushing for wage freezes in labour negotiations." That said, it sure didn't sound like they were working the phones to the media, which will always take a call from the CTF.

Regardless, although MacPherson is right when she says the sum is small in the great scheme of things, the symbolism is powerful -- and related, it is said here, to the mysterious unwillingness of the so-called conservative Opposition to give the NDP credit for doing something right.

Indeed, I imagine there are some in the Opposition who would have liked things left just as they were in the hope conservatives some day return to government and Alberta can get back to being run the way the PCs did for nearly 44 years.

For his part, Ceci subtly demonstrated that taxpayers get value for the money they spend on the civil service compared to the private sector and corporatized groups like some Tory-built ABCs.

By bringing ABC executive salaries into line with much lower paid top civil servants with similar responsibilities, the NDP has also struck a blow against the old Tory spoils system in which ordinary taxpayers footed the bill for a comfortable semi-retirement for superannuated Conservative loyalists.

This is not to say, of course, that all ABC executives were Tory hacks, or didn't do important work. But even where their work was important, and they did it well, Ceci has struck a blow against the pervasive and self-serving myth on the right that huge, anti-social salaries must be paid to executives in public service in order to get the best people.

"We're not concerned about that," Ceci said in response to a predictable question from a reporter during Friday's news conference. Salaries have been benchmarked with those of people holding similar jobs in other governments and organizations, he noted, and "the benchmarks show they’re being fairly compensated relative to people in similar positions."

Certainly, about half the impacted ABC executives will see cuts to their base pay -- although only after a two-year transition period -- and a few will lose literally hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual pay if they stick around.

Alberta Workers Compensation Board CEO Guy Kerr will see his pay shrink from almost $900,000 a year to just under $400,000. Alberta Energy Regulator CEO Jim Ellis's pay will fall from more than $720,000 a year to about $400,000.

As for the taxpayer bankrolled golf club memberships, housing allowances, "retention bonuses," "market modifiers" and "performance bonuses" -- they'll all be gone. Severance pay will be capped at one year.

Ceci was excruciatingly polite about this. He effusively praised the work done by the impacted executives. He said their reaction to his news was "respectful, understanding, appreciative.”

The government's extensive review of the ABC Sector continues. In the first phase last year, 26 agencies were amalgamated or eliminated. There are more than 300 ABCs in all.

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

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