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Privatizing the Alberta government air fleet in haste was a lousy business decision

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Jim Prentice

Alberta's mainstream media seems to have discovered at last that selling off the government's air fleet to expunge the embarrassment of Alison Redford's premiership is not necessarily an astute business move, and is most definitely unfair to the 27 good people who flew and serviced the four planes.

"Government fleet staff sacrificed on alter of political expedience," revealed the headline over a story yesterday by the Edmonton Journal's political columnist.

They most certainly were. This realization by the media is a positive development and illustrates that if you give them long enough, mainstream journalists can sometimes connect the dots after the warm glow from reading the official press release wears off.

Back on Sept. 16, when the government of Alberta announced it would ground and privatize the fleet of four small propeller-driven aircraft, it was argued here in the blogosphere that this decision would end up costing Albertans more and change nothing as the big shots of whatever provincial government is in power take to the skies aboard chartered planes and party like it’s 2012.

"This is always the pattern with the privatization of public services," I wrote then. "Now, in addition to having to pay for airplane services for the top dogs of the provincial government, we taxpayers will have to build in a margin to cover corporate profits, plus higher private-sector insurance and borrowing costs."

The reaction from the right-wing rage machine was typical: denial that the public sector can do anything better than private companies, accusations the arguments presented here were just about protecting "greedy" trade unionists' jobs, and gleeful crowing at someone else's misfortune.

Ah well, as columnist Graham Thomson pointed out in his better-late-than-never commentary yesterday, most of the affected employees aren't union members, and they have never even been informed of why they're being let go by their chicken-hearted bosses. I guess they were supposed to have read about it in the newspaper like the rest of us.

Seriously, people, if the air fleet employees had been members of the government employees' union, at least the employer would have been required by contractual agreement to inform them of the reasons for their mass dismissal -- which would have been interesting since their employer could hardly claim it's laying them off because it doesn't require their services any more.

Au contraire! The government will continue to fly people to remote locations with abandon, just as they always have. Say goodbye to the accountability that public services provide, however. As was noted here on Sept. 16, “we only know what we know about the abuses of the Redford Government because it was a public service they were abusing."

That fact was no doubt a consideration in the government’s hasty "business" decision.

In his column, Thomson usefully referenced the Auditor General's report last August, "which says that even though operating the fleet costs about $3.9 million a year more than using commercial or charter aircraft, that extra money furnishes the government with 'intangible' benefits including safety, security and convenience, not to mention the ability to easily fly into more than 120 airfields around the province, most of which are not serviced by commercial airlines."

Actually, if we take into account typical corporate behaviour, not just an optimistic calculation based on today's air and charter fares, even the vaunted $3.9-million a year saving is not going to last very long. Quite soon, you can expect the chosen charter company's fees to rise, as they plead higher fuel prices, rising aircraft leasing costs, more expensive insurance, and, no doubt, increasing labour costs.

Ask yourself how well this privatization scheme has worked out with long-term care for seniors or highway maintenance and you’ll have your answer about the ultimate destination of Prentice's back-of-the-napkin flight plan.

Thomson also noted there are real costs not included in the Auditor-General’s calculations when the government makes business decisions on the spur of the moment to solve the political crise du jour, for example, paying off the lease on a hangar for which you’ve just signed a 10-year contract.

This decision was made "carefully and thoughtfully,” Prentice assured us. Well, in a manner of speaking I suppose it was.

The thing is, the Progressive Conservative Party hired Jim Prentice as leader for his political skills -- which, we should all agree after the past couple of weeks, are real enough.

The PC Party will now try to persuade the rest of us to keep Prentice on as premier, a job that in Alberta still automatically goes with being leader of the PC pack, in large part because of his supposed business acumen.

The case for that is not nearly as persuasive.

Despite former premier Redford's unconscionable misuse of the planes, Albertans are unlikely to be better off once the aircraft are sold and the work contracted out to the high-cost private sector.

Remember where you heard it first.

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

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