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All lawbreakers will be punished … unless they happen to be Alberta Conservatives

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O. Brian Fjeldheim

In Alberta, lawbreakers must be punished, and they will be punished -- unless, of course, they happen to be supporters of the ruling Progressive Conservative Party.

So, the government announced yesterday, it will be going after the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees for the full cost of the wildcat strike by 2,500 jail guards -- a figure the government ministers were somewhat fancifully suggesting yesterday will be about $6 million.

In addition, on top of the $350,000 in fines AUPE has already paid, Justice Minister Jonathan Denis was promising to use Alberta's primitive labour laws to refuse to collect union dues from thousands of AUPE members who had nothing whatsoever to do with the strike for six months. That could cost AUPE another $8 million or so.

However, also yesterday, the Alberta government was delighted to learn nobody broke any laws when Premier Alison Redford's Progressive Conservative party accepted a donation of $430,000 on a single cheque from drugstore and pro-hockey bazillionaire Daryl Katz seven days before the April 2012 election.

Now, Alberta election law states that no individual, corporation or union may make a donation larger than $30,000 during an election year, so as a layperson you might have thought a $430,000 cheque from one person was pretty strong prima facie evidence that something wasn't quite kosher.

But don't worry about it, said a report by Chief Electoral Officer O. Brian Fjeldheim that was released yesterday, everything was OK because the Katz Group sent along a letter explaining that the donation was really just a convenient way to deliver personal gifts from Katz and 17 of his friends, relatives and business associates.

Fjeldheim had hired a retired judge and a couple of private dicks to look into whether the rules were broken or merely bent when Katz turned up at PC Headquarters in the final desperate hours of the 2012 election campaign, when it looked very much as if the Wildrose Party was about to win.

Based on that investigation, Fjeldheim -- who is a long-time Tory stalwart and Chamber of Commerce president from Vegreville in former premier Ed Stelmach's riding -- said he was satisfied that each of the contributors had made the donations from their own funds. You see, Fjeldheim explained, each of the contributors repaid Katz Group Properties Inc. some time later.

Premier Redford herself and Denis were quick to declare the ruling meant the story was over.

"None of the people the Opposition has repeatedly maligned throughout this entire province over the last few months were found in any responsible, they were completely vindicated," Denis huffed.

"Mr. Katz has been vindicated," echoed a spokesperson for the billionaire in a statement. (Or, maybe Denis was echoing the spokesperson. Whatever!)

Actually, one of the 17 donors was found to have broken the rules. You see, the Katz Group's chief financial officer lives in Ontario, and non-Albertans aren't allowed to make donations in this province. A donation from the same fellow's professional corporation, though, was ruled A-OK.

His penalty? They put a stiff letter on his file!

"I just don’t see how they could have made this finding," said a bemused Alberta NDP Leader Brian Mason. But if Mason, or anyone else, would like to ask Fjeldheim any questions about the investigation, well, forget it! You see, Fjeldheim retired last month, and he's not taking phone calls.

Speaking of unions, as we were a few minutes ago, can you imagine what would have happened if the $430,000 donation had been made to Mason's NDP in the form of a cheque from, oh, say, the AUPE, and that the union has said it was really just a convenient way to deliver donations from a few dozen of its members?

You'd hear the cries of rage and hysteria all the way to Newfoundland! And do you think for an instant Elections Alberta would have ruled everything was just hunky-dory with the donation? Please!

Well, never mind children. Laws can be twisted into the shape of pretzels when it suits our rulers in this province, or ignored altogether for that matter.

As Dave Hancock, Alberta's de facto labour minister explained the PC government's thinking last month: "People should be able to organize their lives the way they want to, and if it's more convenient for them to contribute through their company than personally, I don't have a problem with that." As previously noted, this convenience factor is unlikely to apply to union members.

Meanwhile, if you think this means you can break a law that they do find convenient, especially if it concerns something as insignificant as your right to work in a safe place and go home at the end of your shift in one piece, well, guess again.

That said, all the Redford Government's blustering about what it's going to do to AUPE may not be as simple as likes of Denis and Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk make it sound -- owing to the fact we still live under the federal constitution bequeathed in part to us by Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

One can understand the government's wish to make it appear as if it didn't blink first, especially after all the noise Lukaszuk made about not negotiating with lawbreakers.

But to proceed with its plans in any way except by unconstitutional legislative fiat, it will have to prove in a court somewhere its unlikely claim the strike cost $1.3 million a day, and that the dues suspension should be applied to workers who did not participate in the strike.

This could take years and cost taxpayers millions with no guarantee of success -- although I suppose Premier Redford's political brain trust may have concluded swaggering about it now and spending our money on it later may pay off in the next election.

But remember, Alberta Health Services and its predecessor organizations never managed to impose on AUPE the dues suspension they demanded for an illegal auxiliary nurses' strike in May 2000 -- and that one was over money, not workplace safety.

If you're wondering about all these illegal strikes, by the way, I guess that's what happens in a jurisdiction where most strikes are illegal -- and employees' concerns are treated with disdain.

Regardless, the important lesson from today's two big stories is quite simple: In PC Alberta, the law must be obeyed, unless you're a Conservative and you don't feel like it.

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

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