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So much for 'leading by example' -- Alberta Tories' pay freeze for civil service execs melts away

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Doug Horner

Senior Alberta government managers had to be rejoicing yesterday -- and presumably resolving to update their lapsed memberships in the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party.

Leastways, word leaked out yesterday to us in the Hoi Polloi that the government's three-year freeze on civil service executive salaries, which began amid great fanfare on April Fools Day 2013, had ended after being in effect for only a single year.

No need to trouble our pretty little heads about it, though. Unlike the government of premier Alison Redford, which crowed about the freeze as an example of "leading by example" back on Feb. 19, 2013, the government of Premier Dave Hancock snuck it through a cabinet meeting last week and didn’t say anything at all.

We citizens only found out because someone in the Opposition did and alerted the media.

"Alberta is dealing with rapidly falling resource revenues and it means we're making some tough decisions," said Finance Minister Doug Horner back in 2013, proudly adding, "Our government is leading by example."

Well, so much for symbolism!

Yesterday, Horner didn't say anything at all about the policy's quiet reversal. He was conveniently out of town.

But the reality is that already well-paid civil service execs would be receiving a pay raise of 2 per cent, retroactive to April 1, 2014, then another 2.25 per cent on April 1 next year, and 2.5 per cent more on April 1, 2016.

Wildrose Opposition finance critic Rob Anderson gleefully pointed out in a release that this meant 2011 Tory leadership front-runner Gary Mar, lately the government's generously compensated Hong Kong-based "envoy" to Asia, would be getting a raise of close to $19,000 over the next three years, raising his $275,000 base salary to $294,000.

NDP Finance Critic Deron Bilous noted that last year Horner used the supposed three-year freeze on senior managers' salaries to try "to justify rolling back the wages of Alberta families all over the province. … Now the PCs have decided that Tory insiders like Gary Mar can’t possibly be asked to live with frozen wages.

"Meanwhile, we're still hearing that there is no money to properly fund legal aid, Alberta’s doctors and teachers still have frozen wages, and we continue to have hospitals that spring a leak every time it rains," he added.

Both Opposition parties picked the example of Mar because his appointment in 2011 was controversial and didn't quite pass the sniff test for most voters. In fact, most deputy ministers will be receiving exactly the same raise, while most of their assistants will pocket about $15,000 more per year over the same period.

Deputy Health Minister Janet Davidson, the highest paid civil servant at close to $650,000 a year, will presumably be taking home an extra $45,000 or so for her efforts.

If the percentages sound familiar, there's a reason. They echo the pay raises won by the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees' modestly paid civil service members after the Redford Government's draconian plans to legislate "zero-per-cent increases" broke up on the rocks of the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench -- which, by declaring an injunction against enforcement of the "Public Service Salary Restraint Act" in January, effectively forced the government back to the bargaining table.

But even before that, the Tory caucus -- badly shaken by the public's horror at a number of things Redford was up to, including her plans to have taxpayers build her a luxurious private apartment atop an Edmonton government building adjacent to the Legislature -- deposed the premier in a sky-palace coup.

The caucus then put Hancock in charge, pro tempore, and he began the process of selecting a permanent replacement for the catastrophic Redford -- a race that former federal cabinet minister Jim Prentice is widely expected to win.

Prentice, who is the overwhelming choice of caucus, clearly wanted the party's problems with its public sector unions gone by the time the imperial laurels were placed around his head -- ergo, the deal with AUPE.

The irony of the Hancock Government responding to this by giving its top dogs the same increase their staff members won the hard way is profound. As AUPE President Guy Smith sniffed yesterday, the government’s bargaining team has "now taken the same wage deal they fought to keep from their own front-line staff."

And if the opposition parties and government employees union were unhappy, I imagine the province's physicians and teachers -- who were hammered into taking a pay freeze by the government -- are furious.

Even PC leadership candidates were complaining. Thomas Lukaszuk, the one I managed to catch up with in person yesterday, lamented that "I wish the government of literally today would not make promises that would bind future administrations."

He called for an end to the practice of tying civil service executive salaries of those of their counterparts in business. Their salaries "need to be in line, not with the private sector, but with other institutions. … Today's decision will make that difficult."

Surely the Hancock Government insiders who made this decision knew the optics were appalling -- and that if it found out the public would understand we're not talking about some lowly unionized clerk getting another 2 per cent this year on top of her $32,000 salary.

But with the arrogance of a party that's been in power for nearly 43 years, they obviously concluded they could slip it through in the dog days of summer -- the top-dog days of summer, as it turns out -- without anybody noticing. By the sound of it yesterday, they hadn't even spun any talking points.

Prentice -- without a seat in the Legislature, let alone a place at the caucus table -- is scheduled to take over on Sept. 6. But he's got to be wondering if the mighty Tory ship of state can stay afloat long enough for him to get his hands on the tiller!

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

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