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Oh to be a fly on the cabinet room wall today! Court grants two-week stay on application against AUPE of Bill 46

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Who wouldn't want to be a fly on the wall at today's meeting of the Redford cabinet when the topic of yesterday's ruling by Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Denny Thomas on the matter of Bill 46 comes up?

One imagines the air will be pretty blue behind the closed doors of the cabinet room as the gathered Progressive Conservative ministers consider the unavoidable political implications Justice Thomas's decision to grant a two-week stay halting the application of the Public Service Salary Restraint Act, as the bill has been known since it was passed on Dec. 11 by Premier Alison Redford’s timorous PC caucus.

As a result of the judge's decision to make the parties wait while he decides what to do about the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees' call for a long-term injunction against the act until the courts rule on its constitutionality, a process that could take several years, the agree-or-else ultimatum set out in the act for tomorrow becomes moot.

In the great scheme of things, this is likely to make little difference to anyone, because the government had almost certainly already decided to use another provision of Bill 46 to put off AUPE's statutory surrender-or-take-what-we give-you moment until the end of March -- the whole idea of Bill 46 having turned out not to be nearly as popular with voters as the government had anticipated.

Under the terms of the legislation, if AUPE won't "negotiate" an agreement with the government, the government will impose a two-year wage freeze and other lousy conditions by legislative fiat.

But after 42 years of virtually unchallenged rule, Alberta PCs are unlikely to think they should be told by anyone for any reason that they can't do whatever they feel like whenever they feel like it -- even if the orders come from an independent and impartial judge of a superior court with the constitutional power to do so.

So in the privacy of their privileged legislative chambers, you can count on it they will be furious at even this tiny setback.

In public, of course, Premier Alison Redford's ministers will have little choice but to fume silently and wait politely.

Even though it is impossible for any of us to know what this means about what Justice Thomas is likely to decide, it will be difficult for members of the public not to conclude yesterday's stay indicates the government has bitten off more than it can chew with this legislation.

Moreover, the ruling symbolically illustrates that in a constitutional democracy like Canada, even Alberta's Progressive Conservatives are not all-powerful. That's a reminder Alberta Tories will not welcome, to say the least.

AUPE was very careful not to gloat or imply this represents a victory for its members -- which it does not.

All that's going to happen now is that the law is going to remain on hold until Valentine's Day while Justice Thomas decides if it should remain that way, as AUPE desires, until its the courts have definitively ruled the validity of the union's argument Bill 46 violates its members fundamental freedoms under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Given the Redford Government's attitude, if the decision fails to go its way, it is likely to fight that all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada or until the last taxpayer succumbs to bankruptcy.

Still, AUPE President Guy Smith cautiously observed in a brief news release on the union's website, "while it isn’t a comment on the merits of our case, it does mean the matter is of sufficient complexity that the court needs time to write its decision."

Meanwhile, elsewhere in Canada at the nexus of labour relations and the courts, the British Columbia Supreme Court yesterday ordered the B.C. Government to restore language that was stripped by legislation from the British Columbia Teachers Federation's collective agreements in 2002 and pay the union $2 million in damages.

Madame Justice Susan Griffin ruled that the 2002 law and "virtually identical" legislation passed in 2012 violated unionized teachers' constitutional rights by prohibiting them from bargaining key issues. The damages were awarded because the government extended provisions in the second bill already ruled unconstitutional in the first law.

"It's a great day for democracy, a great day for all working people across Canada, and it's a great day for citizens of British Columbia," BCTF President Jim Iker said in news reports from the West Coast. "The government can't just break the law. They can't just violate the rights of people through legislation."

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“A good song reminds us what we’re fighting for.” Rest in peace, Pete Seeger, 1919-2014.

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

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