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Alberta Tories respond to protests by disabled citizens with instinctive diversionary attack

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The optics of a government like Alberta's Progressive Conservatives cutting $42 million from programs designed to help the province's most vulnerable citizens become more employable are pretty horrible.

What's astonishing, though, is that it seems to have come to a huge surprise to the government of Premier Alison Redford that large numbers of the province's "persons with developmental disabilities" would vigourously protest the cuts -- and that such heart-rending demonstrations by vulnerable people would attract both media attention and public sympathy.

Less astonishing was the government's swift reaction -- somewhere in the Tory political lizard brain is an instinct to mount a diversionary attack when something goes awry. After all, a good noisy scrap with a third party means voters are less likely to concentrate too much on a government’s obvious deficiencies.

This government was faced with the spectacle of increasingly anguished protests by obviously disabled and vulnerable people, at one of which last Wednesday the police tactical squad was called to a packed town hall meeting in Edmonton to take down a distraught disabled man. Someone said the man had threatened Frank Oberle, the associate minister of services for persons with disabilities, who was trying make the government's case at the meeting.

Perhaps sensing that men in black armed with automatic rifles in the lobby was not the best way to project the image of a government anxious to have "a conversation" with voters, as the PCs like to put it nowadays, the government quickly tried to turn embarrassment into a brawl with the non-profits that currently provide many of the services.

So the Natural Governing Party is now busy pushing the idea it’s not cutting anything, just reorganizing the way services to the disabled are delivered, and spinning the notion the protests are all about greedy businesses upset that bigger and more efficient companies will get the work after the cuts go into effect on July 1.

Last Friday in Calgary, for example, Redford suggested the fight was really about whether the money would go to businesses or the individuals who need it. "It is not our commitment to ensure that we keep funding service providers, which are essentially, even as not-for-profits, businesses," said the premier.

As an addendum, she rather glibly observed that "people are nervous because change is always difficult."

In a backhanded way, the government has a point, if only because the shell game it's been playing with support for the disabled in the March 2013 provincial budget.

It's been moving supports for people with other disabilities into the so-called PDD budget envelope, changing funds available for contracts with service providers, not communicating what it's doing with anyone, bragging it's cutting the budget to fight the deficit, insisting the changes have nothing to do with cutting the budget and generally making it extremely hard for anyone to have a clear picture of what's really going on.

It's difficult to believe this level of confusion isn't intentional, although we should never rule out the possibility that what we suspect is malice is really merely incompetence.

It's hard to forget that in 2011 when Redford was running from behind for the leadership of the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party, she successfully and popularly positioned herself as the candidate who believed "a healthy society looks after its most vulnerable."

She vowed to increase Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped, the monthly payments made to people with permanent disabilities who are unable to work, and she delivered on that promise.

In the government's pre-Bitumen-Bubble 2012 budget, AISH payments grew by $400 a month to $1,588. The monthly employment exemption threshold for AISH recipients also doubled to $800 for single clients and to $1,950 for families. News reports at the time suggested this change cost the government an additional $271 million.

Now, in its post-Bitumen-Bubble 2013 budget, the same government is hacking $42 million from services that help people with disabilities learn work skills.

According to various news reports, about 40,000 Albertans receive AISH, while about 10,000 benefit from the services that are being cut.

Surely in many cases they're the same people. So while one hates to use this phrase, it sure sounds as if despite its leadership change in 2011 this is still a government with no plan -- other than, maybe, building a pipeline to somewhere.

The government's shock at last week's protests and its diversionary attack on the service providers who will soon be replaced by bigger and better-connected contractors both suggest just how arrogant and disconnected this nearly 42-year-old conservative dynasty has become.

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

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