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What's behind the United Conservative Party's emerging fury at nurses?

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Alberta Finance Minister Travis Toews speaks about budget 2019. Image: Government of Alberta/Flickr

What's with the sudden hate on for nurses by United Conservative Party supporters?

It comes from somewhere. Your average UCP internet troll doesn't just come up with this stuff on their own.

The traditional Conservative approach to attacking nurses and other predominantly public and female employee groups for their opposition to neoliberal austerity policies and the harm they do is to express great regard, even fondness, for these widely respected groups, but to disparage their unions.

This was the strategy adopted by Alberta Finance Minister Travis Toews last Friday as he sought to justify pay cuts and layoffs for registered nurses and other public employees included in the ongoing UCP government austerity binge that's required to finance billions of dollars in tax cuts for billionaires and profitable corporations.

"We have the highest respect and admiration for all public sector workers. These potential changes do not change the value we place on their dedication to Albertans," Toews said in the final pro forma line of the government's news release that day.

You can take that for what it's worth -- not much, it's said here, especially given the strong international market for RNs' services and the UCP's claims to believe in the freedom of the market -- but at least it's polite.

So whatever is prompting unusual critical commentary about nurses as a group that's starting to be posted by Conservative agitators on social media, it's not coming from the official documents left behind for posterity by the Alberta government.

But what about the subculture of officials like Matt Wolf and semi-official bloviators like Danielle Smith? The former, as is coming to be well known, is Premier Jason Kenney's "executive director of issues management," a title that could fairly be interpreted based on Wolf's online behaviour to mean he is chief government troll. The latter is the former Wildrose Party leader and defector to the Progressive Conservative Party of yore, lately reduced to doing duty as a host on right-wing talk radio and frequent Postmedia contributor.

"Ever wonder why there are so many casual and part-time registered nurses? It's because overtime allows them to make full-time pay working part-time hours ... in 2018 alone there were 513 registered nurses making more than $129,800," Wolf tweeted the same day Toews was taking his kinder, gentler and more qualified shots at Alberta's supposedly overpaid public employees.

Now, $129,800 may not seem like a hell of a lot for a medical professional who can save your life -- especially when the shot is coming from a fellow paid about $200,000 a year just to be mean to people online, without even worrying about getting his facts straight!

The fact, by the way, is that so many Alberta nurses are part time or casual because that's the way Alberta Health Services wants it.

Regardless of what AHS and the government may say on any given day, AHS job postings speak for themselves. Consider the final three days of last month: On November 30, AHS posted 36 new positions, 15 part time; five casual and 16 full time; on November 29 it was 47 new positions, 26 part time; five casual and 15 full time; on November 28, it was 46 new postings, 25 part time, four casual and 17 full time. Are you starting to see a pattern here?

The solution's pretty obvious, as United Nurses of Alberta President Heather Smith said in a newspaper opinion piece responding to similar drivel published in the Calgary Herald by Danielle Smith, who in addition to the experience listed above is a former Fraser Institute apparatchik: "If you want to reduce nurses' overtime, hire more nurses!"

The Kenney government wants to do the opposite and roll back RNs' salaries by 3 per cent to boot. What do you think the result of that is going to be, for crying about loud? Danielle Smith's column also quoted salary claims about Alberta registered nurses pulled out of a Canadian Taxpayers Federation press release. The numbers didn't come from what Alberta RNs are actually paid, which can be found on page 287 of the current UNA collective agreement with AHS.

While what Toews says may represent the best advice of the Alberta government's public relations professionals, what Wolf said at the same time without any doubt represents precisely what Premier Kenney was thinking at the same moment. If it were not so, Wolf would already be looking for new employment.

No, the nasty and disrespectful tone inherent in Wolf's tweetery is the real thing, the true UCP position on medical professionals who dare to push back against the increasingly troubling health-care policies of the party -- whose activists, at its weekend annual general meeting in Calgary, voted down a resolution calling for any changes to the health-care system in Alberta to "comply with the principles set out in the Canada Health Act."

Wolf's commentary soon set off nastier stuff, with party supporters, for example, tweeting a fantasy about RNs sitting around complaining while a licensed practical nurse did all the work. I would wager it will get nastier still, until Kenney tells Wolf to tone down the rage machine for a while.

Nurses enjoy immense respect from the public because of the work they do -- which is known to any Albertan who has been in the health-care system, or had a family member there.

If Kenney and his mouthpiece, Wolf, continue in this vein, my guess is they'll get some pushback from members of the public, including members of their own party, and return to the traditional formula of saying one thing about public employees and another about their unions.

Still, this is a troubling development, which shows just how cocksure the UCP is right now as it sets about dismantling public health care, and just how intolerant of dissent, no matter how respected the dissenter, the party is.

The more respected the dissenters, the angrier it seems to make the UCP.

There are many signs Alberta is not a healthy democracy right now. This is another one.

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: Government of Alberta/Flickr

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