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United Conservative MLA promotes call for 20 per cent pay cut for public employees

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Cypress-Medicine Hat United Conservative Party MLA Drew Barnes. Image: David J. Climenhaga

With friends like Drew Barnes, does the United Conservative Party really need enemies in these troubled times?

The right-wing Frankenparty may have won the 2019 provincial election convincingly soon after it was cobbled together from the fringy Wildrose party and the old Progressive Conservatives by former Harper government cabinet minister Jason Kenney, but that was back when it was still possible to make the case in some circles that the NDP was responsible for the province's economic troubles.

Now, with COVID-19, the UCP's war on doctors, and talk of Great Depression 2.0 in the air, it's the competence of the province's current managers that is attracting critical attention, while Kenney and his online praetorian guard insist there's nothing Alberta can do about stuff that happens in other countries except build more pipelines.

Certainly, the UCP needs to be mindful of the anxieties of voters in the three years leading up to the next election expected in 2023, which look like they'll be a challenging time to govern by any measure.

So Barnes's timing was probably not ideal when he took to Twitter yesterday to endorse a call for a 20 per cent pay cut for all public employees -- including those health-care workers so many of us are out there banging pots and pans to thank for standing between us and the coronavirus.

Touting a 20 per cent COVID-lockdown haircut for health-care workers may play OK in Barnes's Cypress-Medicine Hat riding in Alberta's southeastern-most corner. But in Calgary, the region that gave the election to the UCP last year, maybe not so much now.

As for Edmonton, it will further convince voters the only mistake they made in 2019 was the single UCP MLA they elected in the NDP Opposition's citywide sweep.

Barnes was first elected to represent Cypress-Medicine Hat for the Wildrose party in 2012. After Wildrose leader Danielle Smith eloped with Jim Prentice's Progressive Conservative caucus in 2014, the former 'Hat real estate salesman even sought the Wildrose leadership, collecting a respectable 3,502 votes in 2015 to eventual winner Brian Jean's 4,792.

Still, that may have been one of Barnes's last brushes with credibility. Afterward, came climate change denial, separatist-sounding grumbling and like things. Nevertheless, he rushed to Kenney's side early in the days when the Wildrose and the PCs were still separate entities.

After Kenney's second coming as UCP leader and the party's subsequent election victory a year ago, Barnes's nose was rumoured to be out of joint when the new premier wouldn't let him anywhere near the cabinet table. Still, Kenney gave him a number of committee posts and put him on the so-called "fair deal" panel, which is supposed to report any day now.

Just in the last few days, Barnes has been in the news again.

There was a revelation a property management company that manages more than 30 rental properties in Medicine Hat owned by Barnes and his wife had threatened a tenant with eviction days after Premier Kenney announced a one-month ban on evictions. In 2017, PressProgress also reported, Barnes was identified by Alberta Health Services as owner of a property found to be in a condition that could be "injurious or dangerous to the public health."

A few days earlier, there was a Twitter uproar when Barnes seemed to endorse a Postmedia article by Conrad Black, the septuagenarian failed newspaper publisher, complaining about the economic impact of measures to limit the spread of COVID-19.

His latest retweet exasperated the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees sufficiently to issue a news release yesterday calling on Barnes to apologize for devaluing front-line workers.

"When provinces like Ontario and Quebec have been providing raises to staff to recognize their work, Barnes seems to want to do the opposite," said AUPE vice-president Karen Weiers. "Instead of Twitter trial balloons, we need this government coming to the table with unions like AUPE to talk about how we can better support our front line heroes."

Barnes could save himself and his party a lot of trouble by not retweeting Postmedia drivel by former jailbirds and "senior fellows" at right-wing "institutes."

As for the piece that caught his attention yesterday, the one demanding a 20 per cent reduction of public-service pay, it seems like a strong argument for no more federal subsidies, tax breaks or other benefits for Postmedia -- a company that since 2016 has been almost totally controlled by U.S. hedge funds.

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 his blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: David J. Climenhaga​

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