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Democracy, Alberta-style: Voters can have any policy they want, as long as it's Conservative

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Jeff Johnson

In Alberta, it appears you now have more power as the president of a neighbourhood community league than as a duly elected member of a school board!

With province-wide municipal elections scheduled to take place in October, that's something would-be candidates for school trustee might want to think about.

Albertans had a small but significant demonstration of this axiom yesterday, when Education Minister Jeff Johnson announced that if members of elected school boards won't co-operate with the government and vote the way they have been instructed, the results of their mistaken votes will be made to reflect the decision they were supposed to make.

The same goes for teachers' union locals, which usually hold contract ratification votes. But if union members fail to vote the correct way, the minister said, they will also be required to accept the contract they rejected!

Figuring out how to live with it, of course, will still be their problem.

We call this … Democracy, Alberta-style!

We might also call it the First Law of Governing Alberta, which would go something like this: "We made a mistake. We gave it to you. Now it's your mistake … and we won't take it back!"

So Johnson says he will introduce a law that takes the four-year collective agreement that the government of Premier Alison Redford negotiated in March with the Alberta Teachers Association and make any school board that refused to ratify it (like the Public School Board in Calgary, the largest in the province) or any ATA local where members did the same thing (like the public schoolteachers in in my community of St. Albert) and force them to take it anyway.

The really strange thing about this is that it was Johnson himself who made this into an all-or-nothing proposition. There is no basis in existing legislation, regulations, ATA policy or Alberta School Boards Association policy saying teachers' negotiations have to be unanimous or a deal fails. The minister just made that part up.

Now, back in the days when a bilingual Canada seemed like a fairly novel idea, out here in Alberta a lot of Conservatives used to call bilingual product labelling on cereal boxes having French shoved down your throat with your cornflakes.

However, in 2013 when it comes to making democratic organizations vote the way you want them to -- or else! -- it's called the Assurance for Students Act.

That means, I guess, that students can be assured that their school trustees aren't allowed to vote the way they want to if the Redford Government disagrees.

No, I'm joking. What Johnson seems to have in mind is that students can be assured that their teachers won't be getting a pay raise for the next three years, but their union will be getting the "comfort letter" it wanted saying it’s their sole bargaining agent plus their professional association now and forevermore.

Or, as the Edmonton Journal more accurately summarized it: "The four-year, province-wide agreement freezes teacher salaries for three years and gives them a two-per-cent raise and bonus in the fourth year. It also limits teachers' working hours and offers assurances the government won’t tinker with the ATA's powers for the length of the agreement."

What this is really about, most likely, is proving that the Redford Government can get something done before the premier's party leadership review next November. As such, if we lived in less Orwellian times, it should probably have been called the Assurance for Alison Redford Act.

Presumably if everyone had gone along with the deal as the government wanted, it would also have let the government say to other unions now or soon in negotiations with it or its agencies, like the province's civil servants and its nurses, "see, the teachers took zero and you should too."

Alas, this argument surely loses some of its impact when you realize that the teachers had no choice.

Still, it was a step back from the rumour circulating last week, presumably spread by government officials who were putting the full-court press on holdout trustees, that any school board that failed to ratify would be summarily fired. Not sure if we can call that a positive sign for democracy in Alberta, though.

The act also didn't include legislation summarily imposing contracts on other public service unions -- just yet, anyway -- the topic of another rumour that was busily doing the rounds.

From the government's perspective, the legislation does act as a convenient threat to try to make other public sector unions behave as the government wishes.

All this put the ATA in a tricky position. The teachers' union clearly wants the deal, and was doubtless pressing recalcitrant teachers almost as hard as the government was coming down on reluctant trustees.

At the same time, they couldn't really publicly cheer Johnson's crushing the rebellion by the feisty public schoolteachers in St. Albert and their colleagues down Highway 16 in Elk Island.

So ATA President Carol Henderson came right out and was both for and against Johnson's legislation: "He had to do this in order to keep the deal alive, and we will accept it, but it's not our preferred solution."

I guess that's about as close as the ATA is going to come to a passionate cry of "A las Barricadas!"

Henry Ford, the American industrialist, actually explained pretty well how this sort of thing works, when he said of his Model-T automobile, at the time the best-selling horseless buggy in America: "Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black."

For those of you who aren't from around here, that's how democracy works in Alberta too: You can have any government you want, so long as it's Conservative.

And now we know that goes for any level of government under provincial control as well.

As for union members, you can have any contract you want as long as it's the one we tell you to want. But then, we already knew that!

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

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