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Canada, keep your eye on Alberta -- it won't be pretty, but it should be instructive

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It should be a crazy week under the socially distanced dome of the Alberta legislature. Image: David J. Climenhaga

You can just tell it's likely to be a crazy week in Alberta politics.

To understand just how crazy, you have to think about what the Kenney government is noisily focusing on, and what is actually happening.

In the legislature, Premier Jason Kenney and his United Conservative Party government are busy ramming through a couple of bad laws -- one setting the stage for further privatization of public heath care and the continuation of the government's mid-pandemic war on physicians, the other designed to reduce the rights of working people in the name of cutting "red tape" and to hamstring unions by smothering them in the same stuff.

Bill 30, the Health Statutes Amendment Act, will allow businesses to run medical clinics that treat doctors as employees, let private surgical clinics be fast-tracked and permit the Health Ministry to write contracts with doctors to cut the Alberta Medical Association out of the process.

As AMA president Christine Molnar asked in a letter to her members yesterday: "Could this support a scenario where all physicians' funds for a particular specialty are given to a for-profit corporation, resulting in the physicians having no option but to seek employment from that corporation to practice their specialty in Alberta?"

Bill 32, the tendentiously named Restoring Balance in Alberta's Workplaces Act, would allow employers to avoid paying minimum wages, deny employees overtime pay in the form of a "work averaging" scam, and try to force unions put every single activity not defined by the government as basic labour relations to a membership vote in which each member was assumed to have opted out. The goal is to immobilize unions with red tape. The bill also includes provisions that make organizing unions harder, breaking them easier and picketing ineffective.

"I don't, in my career as a lawyer, in this house, recall ever seeing a bill that breaches the Charter of Rights and Freedoms as many times and in many ways as Bill 32 does," remarked Opposition Leader Rachel Notley.

But don't expect fulsome debate in the legislature. Both bills have already passed second reading and UCP house leader Jason Nixon has given notice the government will use closure to limit debate on both to two hours if the NDP Opposition tries too hard to illustrate the flaws of the bills in the house.

Naturally, debate is less likely to do the government harm if it's restricted to partisans yelling at each other on social media, letting Premier Kenney get the session wrapped on Thursday.

At the same time, the government is pushing ahead with its plan to reopen schools is September with less funding than last year and no thoughtful safety plan to counter the spread of COVID-19 among children beyond a wing and a prayer that Alberta can somehow pull this off first and Kenney can look great for whatever job he plans to go after next.

Probably the only things that could stop this jerrybuilt back-to-school plan now would be a mass refusal by parents to send their kids go back, or a wildcat teachers' strike. Both seem unlikely, but neither is impossible.

Meanwhile, the story the UCP would very much like all of us to ignore, the resurgence of COVID-19 in Alberta, proceeds apace thanks to Kenney's hurry to be the first Canadian premier to completely reopen his province's economy.

"The curve is no longer flat in Alberta," said Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw at yesterday afternoon's daily COVID-19 briefing. This may sound faintly illogical, but I think we all understand what she was trying to say. To wit: the progress of the coronavirus disease is trending upward again, and if we're not careful we'll end up in the same fix as Texas, Georgia, Oklahoma and the other places Kenney looks to for his economic and social models.

How bad is it? Not quite as bad as some predicted on Friday, but not great. There were eight more deaths and 304 new cases on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and the highest level of active cases in the province since May 10.

Remember that with this disease infection spikes lag dumb decisions by about two weeks. The government sent large numbers of civil servants back to their offices yesterday, so we can probably expect an increase in cases as a result of that by mid August.

On the other hand, Calgary starts mandatory masking in public spaces on August 1, a policy conspicuously not supported by the UCP, but that may create an improvement by mid-month for which Kenney can claim credit.

Finally, next Monday the government plans a one-day debate on Finance Minister Travis Toews's quarterly fiscal update, which is expected to be dire. The result, almost certainly, will be austerity, austerity and more austerity, with the possibility of another tax cut thrown in. The chances the government will acknowledge reality and impose a sales tax are, it is said here, nil.

Finally, on August 27 the government plans a one-day debate on Finance Minister Travis Toews's quarterly fiscal update, which is expected to be dire. The result, almost certainly, will be austerity, austerity and more austerity, with the possibility of another tax cut thrown in. The chances the government will acknowledge reality and impose a sales tax are, it is said here, nil.

We Albertans, of course, are going to have to live with this stuff. But it's important for Canadians in other provinces to pay attention to what's happening here too.

After all, Alberta is the test bed for what they will be subjected to if the Conservative Party of Canada somehow manages to get another kick at the national can.

When Stephen Harper and the CPC were run out of power in 2015, Alberta was the place they retreated to nurse their grievances with a Confederation that didn't see much benefit in a rigidly neoliberal future.

When Kenney, Harper's loyal retainer and chief lieutenant in Ottawa, became premier here last year, they imagined Alberta would be the beachhead of their campaign to regain the government of Canada.

It's hard to believe that what they're doing here on a policy level will play in Prince Rupert, Peterborough or Pointe-Claire, but Canadians still need to be alert to what happens when ideological fervour and dangerous incompetence are mixed during a real crisis like the one caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

The result isn't pretty, as we've already seen south of the Medicine Line. Keep your eye on Alberta too.

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

Editor's note, July 29, 2020: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that mandatory masking in Calgary starts on August 14. It actually starts on August 1.

Editor's note, July 30, 2020: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the government had planned a one-day debate on the finance minister's quarterly fiscal update for Monday, August 3. That debate is actually planned for August 27.

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