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UCP purges NDP appointees from Alberta's boards, agencies and commissions

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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney. Image: Government of Alberta/Flickr

You almost have to admire Alberta's United Conservative Party government for the thoroughness of its sudden purge of NDP appointees to government agencies, boards and commissions on Friday.

The Friday Morning Massacre began with news the UCP was clearing out NDP appointments on the boards of 10 post-secondary institutions and the Banff Centre.

Through the day the purge extended to governing boards of the Workers Compensation Board, the Alberta Health Services Board, the Alberta Gaming, Liquor and Cannabis Commission, the Human Rights Commission, the Municipal Governance Board and sundry similar bodies.

Premier Jason Kenney, Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides and other ministers appear not to have been around to defend the dramatic restructuring, leaving that task to the premier's press secretary.

New appointees included a former Ottawa crony of the premier, a member of Kenney's transition team, a failed UCP candidate, a lawyer for the Ethical Oil Institute, and a former Canadian Taxpayers Federation chair and signatory to the notorious 2001 sovereignist Firewall Manifesto that called for Alberta to withdraw from the Canada Pension Plan and the Canada Health Act.

At least 18 of the new UCP appointees were donors of significant sums to the party or UCP-friendly PACs set up to skirt election-financing laws. A scan of financing disclosures by Duncan Kinney of Progress Alberta showed 16 donors who together contributed more than $100,000 to various conservative political causes were appointed to post-secondary boards yesterday. Progress Alberta will publish a more detailed report on Monday.

In truth, though, something like this is what the NDP needed to do when it came to power in 2015.

After 44 years of Conservative government, an NDP premier would have had considerably more justification to act decisively as well, given the depth to which agencies, boards and commissions, not to mention the senior levels of the civil service, were packed with Conservative sympathizers.

The government of Rachel Notley, however, chose to do what it believed to be the responsible thing and left much of this potential Conservative fifth column in place to do what it could to derail or delay the NDP program.

Not only did the NDP leave likely Conservative sympathizers in senior public jobs where they could do real damage, it waited politely to fill board, agency and commission governing boards until vacancies came open.

The NDP also professionalized the selection process -- holding interviews and insisting applicants were genuinely qualified for the role they were selected to play.

This showed either commendable respect for the Canadian tradition of a disinterested public service as a key democratic norm -- or a degree of naivety that suggests there's something to the old adage nice guys finish last.

The UCP, by comparison, are not nice guys. Whether you like it or not -- and some Albertans do, of course -- that should be quite evident by now.

Nevertheless, Friday's events in Alberta can also be a teaching moment for progressive parties that come to power in Canada’s provincial capitals, and in Ottawa.

It is all very well for progressives to defend the idea of professionalism in the civil service and on public boards. But it's also important to remember that if a government wants to implement even a moderately progressive agenda, it had better be prepared put in place people who will carry it out.

As for the UCP's very, very angry base, it will be delighted -- even though the events it presages may blow back in their faces. It will be hard to feel much sympathy for them when it does -- when rural hospitals are closed, for example -- but I suppose we'll have to summon up the effort.

For their part, most Alberta New Democrats will be outraged -- and therefore risk learning little or taking the wrong lessons from the purge.

The Kenney Government's changes yesterday, and the way they were made, are harbingers of both how radical the UCP program is likely to be after the October 21 federal election, and the strategy it will use of making swift changes hatched in secret before its opposition has a chance to organize.

That said, NDP appointees who claim to have been blindsided by yesterday's events have no excuse. It was obvious from before the April election that the UCP would do this if given the chance, and some of those NDP appointees' friends said just that and were scoffed at.

Looking ahead, if you are a health care worker like a nurse, don't expect the Alberta Health Services Board to oppose a government attack on your pay and working conditions.

If you're a public employee of any kind, don't expect the so-called "blue-ribbon" panel to conclude you deserve fair pay and a decent pension.

If you are a student, don't expect your institution's board to defend you when tuition fees rise stratospherically.

If you are injured at work under the new setup at the Workers Compensation Board, you can count on it being just like the old corporate setup before the NDP came along, only worse.

If you're trapped in precarious work, don't expect the minimum wage "expert panel" to discover that the majority of economists are right after all in their view your $15-per-hour minimum wage does no harm to the economy and plenty of good.

And even if you're a UCP supporter who imagines your government is doing battle with "elites" on your behalf, I expect you won't have to wait long before discovering the big money and perks like golf club memberships are being restored to the UCP apparatchiks who run government ABCs.

But if you're any of these things, don't despair either.

The complete absence of moderate, restraining voices in the organs of this government clears the decks for the only response that is ever effective against an authoritarian regime: solidarity and direct action.

Democracy doesn't only happen in the polling booth.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca

Image: Government of Alberta/Flickr

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