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Hell freezes over in Alberta: Right-wing Wildrose Party sides with unions, sort of

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Rob Anderson

With blizzard conditions prevailing throughout most of Alberta today, it was still a surprise when the right-wing Wildrose Party issued a news release supporting the province's largest union and promising if it is elected it will undo much of the damage done by the Redford Government's unconstitutional Bills 45 and 46.

Talk about the proverbial strange political bedfellows!

There was considerable discussion in some of Alberta's more cynical quarters late yesterday about whether Hell actually had frozen over, or if it was merely the perfect (snow) storm that led to this unusual alliance. Of course, the most deeply cynical ventured the opinion it was all a snow job.

Regardless, as alert readers of this blog will recall, not very long ago it was revealed here the 80,000-plus-member Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, the province's largest union and the specific victim of the contract imposed in the vindictive Bill 46, seemed to be tilting toward the Wildrose Party.

Perhaps it was merely a matter of the enemy of my enemy is my friend, but AUPE's leadership seemed to have concluded a Wildrose government led by Opposition Leader Danielle Smith could hardly be worse and might be considerably better than the one we have now, led by Premier Alison Redford's supposedly Progressive Conservative Party.

Now it appears that the attraction may be mutual. This is a circumstance that spells extreme danger for the Redford's PC Party -- especially for dozens of MLAs from rural and small-town ridings who won in April 2012 by narrow pluralities that were buoyed by strategic ballots cast by progressive voters who feared the Wildrose was too far to the right even for Alberta. Many of those voters were public sector union members.

No one is suggesting here that core Wildrose beliefs have changed -- notwithstanding the party's recent reconstitution as the kinder, gentler Mildrose Party -- but Smith and her House Leader and Finance Critic, Airdrie MLA Rob Anderson, have clearly found a way to square their fundamental beliefs with those of AUPE.

The Wildrose news release, issued over Anderson's name, states that "the Wildrose believes strongly in respecting the rule of law and upholding contracts including collective bargaining agreements. Negotiating a collective bargaining agreement that is fair for taxpayers is an important goal; however, it does not give the government the right to terminate the legal arbitration rights of public sector employees."

"In 1977, Premier Peter Lougheed provided public sector employees the right to binding arbitration as an alternative to removing their right to strike," Anderson said, seemingly picking up on some of AUPE’s talking points. "We believe that this was and still is a fair compromise that should be upheld.

"For these reasons" -- and this is the important part of the release -- "the Wildrose will be actively opposing Bill 46 in the Legislature and will repeal Bill 46 and reinstate those lost arbitration rights should Wildrose form government in 2016."

That's pretty specific, and it would be a difficult promise to break.

On Bill 45, which in part attacks the free speech rights of all Albertans, the Wildrose statement was more cagey: "We will also be proposing Bill 45 amendments that protect the free speech rights of individual public sector workers to express opposition to the decisions or tactics of government, while supporting provisions in the Bill that deter the organization of illegal strikes by union leadership. It should be noted, however, there are already laws prohibiting illegal strikes including an expedited court process to end them, which is why the timing of Bill 45 is counterproductive as it unnecessarily creates suspicion and bad faith during the negotiation process."

Indeed, why the PCs have done this just now, when there is no reason for it, remains something of a mystery -- although one Edmonton mainstream media columnist advanced the theory yesterday that it's all about me! Leastways, according to Paula Simons of the Edmonton Journal, a University of Alberta law professor has argued "the new legislation … is designed in part to intimidate high-profile, labour affiliated bloggers such as Dave Climenhaga and Dave Cournoyer."

Well, that's highly complimentary theory, of course, and all the more reason the readership of this blog should grow -- but I nevertheless remain skeptical. It's about shutting up everyone!

Getting back to the Wildrose release, its commentary on Bill 45 suggests the Opposition party would keep some of the harsher punishments for any public sector unions that permitted an illegal strike to take place. Nevertheless, the taking of a much more moderate position on this issue by the Official Opposition is a significant development in Alberta politics.

AUPE and other Canadian public sector unions have historically not been able to tell their members whom to vote for -- nor has AUPE ever tried very hard. But AUPE certainly can suggest whom they should not vote for with a higher likelihood of success.

I can tell you that about 650 members of AUPE and other public sector unions cheered Anderson, who had been warmly introduced by AUPE President Guy Smith, when he addressed their rally in the bitter cold and snow yesterday evening, reading from his press release on the steps of the Legislature Building in Edmonton.

Notwithstanding the anger over Bills 45 and 46, very large numbers of members of AUPE and other public sector unions are already furious at the Redford Government for its plans to gut their pensions in a scheme announced in mid-September.

The pension plan changes announced by Finance Minister Doug Horner on Sept. 16 would significantly decrease the value of the plans for new members, and in some scenarios could even threaten the viability of benefits for pensioners and those closer to retirement.

Not only are about 300,000 Albertans directly impacted by the pension changes, most of them in AUPE and three other large unions, about 80 per cent of those people are married. That is a very significant number of voters who are now paying close attention to what the PCs say as they grow increasingly worried about their retirement income.

Horner's pension changes provide a persuasive argument to this group, represented in every riding in Alberta, to quit supporting the Tories, who are increasingly perceived as untrustworthy, and take their votes to either more progressive parties like the New Democrats and the Alberta Liberals, or to the Wildrose Party.

In Edmonton, which is certain to be a key battleground in the election promised by Redford's party for 2016, any riding that swings to the NDP or the Liberals will be doing a favour for the Wildrose if the Opposition party can hang onto its stronghold in rural southern Alberta.

And the impression the Redford Government is not trustworthy was hardly improved yesterday when the PC Speaker of the House, Gene Zwozdesky, found it in contempt of the Legislature for distributing a leaflet that announced public employees' pay had been frozen -- before MLAs had a chance to vote on the freeze.

No wonder with all this going on, the Opposition party has also recently produced a cute video cajoling current PC members to of the Legislature "c'mon over" to the Wildrose caucus -- which, they allege, "will allow you to be you."

The Wildrose caucus is a "pretty friendly crowd," and, what's more, "we're awesome," say some of the Wildrose MLAs who appear in the short video, which was first reported on Cournoyer's blog.

Whether the Wildrose is more fun than being a tiny cog in the Tory machine or not, there's a feeling in Alberta again that voters want change, and the PC Party's decision to abandon its winning centrist alliance to woo its most reactionary elements makes change more likely, not less so.

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

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