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Advice to new Alberta premier: Sweet words won't be enough for unhappy civil servants

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Dave Hancock

What a difference a few days can make! One leaves the province with one premier in power, figuratively bellowing threats at the civil service, and returns less than a week later to find another one, whispering sweet nothings in the same public employees' ears!

Well, that's not quite fair. Whomever Alison Redford was bellowing threats at last week, it wasn't likely the Alberta civil service any more. In her mind, I suspect, she reckoned she'd already sorted them out. By the end of last week, the former premier had bigger fish to fry.

Nevertheless, it is significant that literally the first semi-public act of the new premier, Dave Hancock, after being sworn in as current occupant of the province's most dangerous political job appears to have been a pro forma effort to kiss and make up with the rank and file of Alberta’s civil service.

Newly installed at the helm of HMS Tory, which after all these years is listing to starboard and taking on considerable water, Hancock obviously knows he needs to man the bilge pumps and steer a steady course, with a minimum of fuss, until the new permanent leader takes over next fall.

As the ultimate Alberta Progressive Conservative Party loyalist, there can be little doubt Hancock would very much like to find a way to actually undo some of the damage done during the short, unhappy premiership of Alison Redford -- preferably without having to admit she did any harm at all.

This is more difficult than it might seem when, as deputy premier and before, Hancock served as the chief spokesperson justifying for Redford's worst ideas. And, as we all know, there’s nothing a conservative politician fears more than being labelled a "flip-flopper."

Three of the terrible ideas on behalf of which Hancock bloviated so sweetly, as only an old Queen's Counsel with an eye on a judgeship can do, were:

-    Bill 46, which vindictively forced unionized civil servants represented by the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees to accept an inferior contract by depriving them of their right to collective bargaining, compulsory arbitration or indeed collective action of any kind

-    Bill 45, legislation so blatantly unconstitutional that it should have been obvious even to an ambitious QC, which among other things stripped every Albertan of the right to express the not-so-outrageous opinion that AUPE's members might consider an illegal strike a reasonable option to respond to the previous legislation

-    Plans by Finance Minister Doug Horner to gut the pensions of these same civil servants plus many other public employees

The first two bills were passed by the Tory-packed Legislature and received the Lieutenant Governor's rubber stamp in December, officially taking on the Orwellian names the Public Service Salary Restraint Act and the Public Sector Services Continuation Act. Hancock hailed them at the time and has continued to do so.

The pension scheme, which the new premier also defended in his previous role, has not yet been dignified with a legislative number.

This may be because furious members of the Alberta civil service have been showing up for weeks in the constituency offices of their PC MLAs explaining to a government that had successfully campaigned on a platform of defending public services and public employees the consequences of such a betrayal.

Indeed, the fear aroused among Tory MLAs by these visits, a spontaneous campaign that is unique in the annals of Alberta politics, may have made a significant contribution in the hasty departure of Redford on the weekend -- gone so soon, Madame? Here's your hat!

So on Monday, the new premier set out to settle the civil service down -- through the medium of the traditional soothing memorandum, which nowadays is delivered electronically to every government employee's email in-box.

"Good afternoon," Premier Hancock began, interestingly failing to include the interim portion of his title, probably due to happenstance or advice from the protocol department, but possibly nevertheless giving some ambitious Tories the shudders and jags.

"Yesterday evening, I was honoured and privileged to be sworn in as Alberta's 15th premier. While my tenure in this capacity will be short, Alberta will not stand still and wait, and we cannot stand still either. Albertans deserve good government and we will deliver." (But presumably not, one is tempted to observe, quite as it has been delivered these past couple of years.)

"After the 17 years that I have been a minister in the government of Alberta," Hancock went on, "I have had the opportunity to work with many of you in the public service. I know that your commitment to our province and to serving Albertans is unwavering. The work that each of you do every day for Albertans is important work -- it is work that Albertans count on."

He went on: "Events of the past few weeks have taken the focus away from the work our government and you, the civil service, have been doing. Public service is an important calling, whether in an elected position or in the civil service. Our duty is to the public of Alberta. If we can do better, we should do better. Each and every one of us contributes to making Alberta the place we want for our children and grandchildren."

"As we renew our focus on the important work we do for Albertans and Alberta, I thank you for your dedication and efforts, I ask you for your support and advice in finding ways we can do better and I look forward to working with you through the coming months," Hancock concluded his billet-doux to the civil service.

Fine words indeed! Innovative, even, as befits the premier's holdover dual role as Minister of Innovation and Advanced Education. And we must all admit it was a nice touch equating the work done by elected officials and the sluggos toiling in the much-abused ranks of the civil service.

Yet this kind of billing and cooing makes me think of the immortal words about politics attributed to Lyndon B. Johnson in reference to Richard M. Nixon, spoken before either of them became president of the United States. Questioned by reporters for praising Nixon, whom he had disparaged a night or two before, LBJ explained: "Boys, what ya gotta understand is that in this business, overnight a man can go from chicken shit to chicken salad!"

Alberta's public employees need to remember that without action to back up the new premier's fine talk, the same thing can happen to them, in reverse. It's only politics!

In other words, Hancock's gesture is not very meaningful if the premier intends to continue with policies that will keep on kicking these same valued public employees in the teeth.

And since Horner is sticking by his guns on the pension issue, and could well turn out to be Hancock's next boss -- metaphorically holding the keys to the judge's chamber -- the premier's words need to be taken with a reasonable degree of caution.

Without withdrawing Bills 45 and 46, and dumping Horner's pension "reforms," Monday's fine sentiments from the pen of Premier Hancock -- or at least the word processor of one of his public relations flunkies-- mean nothing at all. Not a thing.

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

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