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With 5,000 job cuts planned, perpetual chaos returns to Alberta's health system

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Image: United Nurses of Alberta/Facebook

With Friday's announcement the Alberta government intends to wipe out close to 5,000 jobs in public health care by 2023, and another 2,500 or so in other parts of the public service, perpetual chaos has returned to health care in Alberta.

Get used to it. It won't be getting better any time soon.

Does anyone remember Jason Kenney's "public health guarantee"?

Back on February 20 of this year, he affixed his signature to a large plastic sign that stated, "I Jason Kenney promise, if elected, that a United Conservative government will: maintain or increase health spending, maintain a universally accessible, publicly funded health care system." Yadda-yadda.

A lot of Albertans, obviously, trusted him. Those of us who suggested that Kenney's pledge might not be worth the coroplast it was written on were dismissed as alarmists. But as was written the next day in this space, if we were to bring back a Conservative government after the novel experience of four years of the NDP at the helm, we'd soon rediscover that how badly Conservatives manage the health file. "We'll likely have to learn that lesson all over again and every day in health care will be Groundhog Day."

At Kenney's election stunt, the future premier also told credulous reporters "this is a guarantee to reallocate any savings found to the front lines."

"There will be no cuts," he said on many other occasions leading up to the election. Indeed, his pledge not to cut health-care funding was repeated throughout the campaign, as was the promise to pass on any savings found to the people who save lives on what are euphemistically known as the front lines of health care.

It turns out those promises were written on water with an axe. Now the axe will be wielded against the front-line workers whose lives and work the UCP vowed to improve.

Although the ugly news was delivered to health-care unions by members of the Alberta Health Services labour relations staff, by the end of the day there could be no doubt the UCP is wielding the axe.

There was an official statement on the government website with Finance Minister Travis Toews defending the plan. And Kenney, speaking to a business conference in Lake Louise, said "we've always been clear that getting our province's finances back in order will require some reduction in the size of the overall public service." Well, not that clear.

This was no ordinary Friday afternoon bad news announcement made in the expectation journalists had already gone home for the weekend and all would be forgotten by Monday morning. On the contrary, the UCP's annual general meeting takes place today in Calgary and reporters will be there in force.

No, Kenney and the UCP are proud of their Black Friday event. They may not have made the promises in public they are about to keep, but you can bet on it just the same this is a case of "promise made, promise kept."

The letters handed by AHS negotiators to health-care unions also contain clear indications that widespread privatization, shuttered health-care facilities, and health-care service cuts are all in the cards. It seems obvious the UCP intends to transfer as much of the burden of paying for health care as possible to the sick and their families, be they rich or poor.

As United Nurses of Alberta president Heather Smith said in her union's news release, "we do not believe Albertans will support this plan, and they should tell the premier so." If I may say so myself, they should tell him.

Whether the premier will pay any attention is another matter. Recently elected by an absolute majority of votes, I imagine his strategists and supporters think they don't have much to worry about. If Ottawa contemplates resisting the worst of their depredations through the Canada Heath Act, look for the volume to be turned up on Wexit. That will happen even if it costs Alberta's economy, as the conference Kenney was attending was warned can happen. After all, Wexit chatter seems to give the prime minister the vapours instead of stiffening his spine like his old man's.

The last time something like this happened, when Ralph Klein was premier, it was nearly 20 years before Alberta's health care system recovered.

But you have to give this much at least to Kenney. He may go down in history as the greatest union organizer in the history of this province.

Already union members across Alberta are paying careful attention to their unions' elected leaders, a phenomenon all but unheard of in the normal course of events. And it's been at least a generation since union members have paid this much attention to what's happening with their pensions, upon which Kenney has been casting covetous eyes.

Stay tuned. There are bound to be developments. 

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 at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: United Nurses of Alberta/Facebook

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