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Budget crisis? Alberta civil service raises? Go pop a Valium, Smith!

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Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith (Dave Cournoyer Photo)

It's hard to imagine all that many Albertans getting their knickers in a twist at the thought of the province's 25 most senior civil service managers getting a 4-per-cent pay raise.

This will come as a profound disappointment to the provincial Legislature's Opposition Wildrose Party. Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith was squawking just last week about how the timing couldn't be worse for the managers to get a raise. "… In the middle of a budget crisis … running a deficit … falling oil prices …" Yadda-yadda.

Budget crisis? What budget crisis?

Folks out here in Alberta seem to be thinking maybe there's a budget crisis somewhere -- Greece possibly, or Portugal, maybe even Stephen Harper's Ottawa -- but there sure as heck isn't one in Edmonton, Calgary or Grande Prairie!

Who knows? Maybe there is a budget crisis here in Alberta, like Smith would sure like us to be panicking about. But you wouldn't know it from the mood of the place on these post-summer-solstice evenings, with the air over Alberta redolent with barbecue smoke and plenty of giant RVs trundling down the highways notwithstanding gas prices edging ever closer to $1.14 a litre in a few locations ($1.08.9 in my neighbourhood).

So, maybe times aren't good like the Wildrose Party would have us believe, but they sure as heck seem good!

Presumably Progressive Conservative Premier Alison Redford's Cabinet knew what they were doing when they chose such a moment to end what’s left of the wage freeze former PC premier Ed Stelmach imposed on civil service managers in a moment of panic back in 2009. You hardly had to be Machiavelli to figure out that no one except the Opposition Leader was going to get all that exercised about the state of the province's finances this summer.

Plus, it was clever of the government to tie the top officials' raises to the most recent scheduled percentage pay increase in the government's contract with the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, which represents the province's 20,000 rank-and-file civil servants.

That's because most Albertans understand that in a place and time where it’s not news to hear of kids fresh out of high school earning six-figure salaries in the oil patch, most ordinary civil servants do useful work and aren't paid all that much.

What's more it was the right-wing, if not necessarily the public-service-hating Wildrose Party, that perpetuated the myth we have to pay high salaries to public sector managers to get the very best people to do the work.

The government's mid-level managers, by the way, already got their raises, and apparently no one noticed -- except, presumably, their spouses. Like the Top 25, their raises are retroactive to April, when the AUPE pay increase kicked in.

This will just make the Wildrose Party all the madder, of course, because on principle they don't think there's anything governments should do except sign trade agreements that tie the hands of future governments, hire a few cops and get on with the important business of privatizing everything. OK, I'm exaggerating a little … maybe …

Pretty clearly, though, this issue isn't working for them. At any rate, alert readers will recall that not so very long ago at all the media was telling us how the Wildrose Party was going to be the government of Alberta and, oh boy, was the blood ever going to flow then!

Well, guess what? Ordinary public employees -- the ones who aren't paid all that well -- apparently do pay attention. What's more, it turns out they get out and vote, and so do their partners and children, neighbours and quite a few of the people they buy stuff from too. So in the April 23 Alberta election, however they voted, they sure as heck didn't vote for Smith and the Wildrose Party in any significant numbers.

Just the same, just in case Smith managed to get any traction with the issue thanks to a still-sympathetic media, Redford's Tories released the news just before last weekend started, and made sure no one elected was around to comment on it. By the time the weekend was over, so was the issue. By yesterday it had completely dropped off the edge of the earth -- which is reputed to be about 16 kilometres east of the Saskatchewan border.

Even the normally relentless Canadian Taxpayers Federation seemed to get this. Awwww, said their Alberta spokesperson Scott Hennig, the Energizer Bunny of right wing nostrums, it "won't break the bank."

All this is a pity of sorts, because while Smith misjudged the public's engagement with her tiresome budget scare tactics, she was right about one thing. A case can be made that the very highest levels of Alberta's public service are overpaid. It's far from clear that you couldn't get fine work from top civil service managers paid less than the $275,159 they will now be paid.

But we're talking about deputy ministers and their equivalents here -- literally only 25 people in the entire provincial public service.

So the prevailing mood in Alberta this summer seems to be: What's the big deal? Go pop a Valium, Smith!

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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