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Alberta roundup: Press conferences, photo ops, on-line surveys, not to mention a body in the back of a pickup truck!

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Dr. Anny Sauvageau

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Is that just a whiff of panic I smell in the air? Or just garden-variety manipulation?

Could be a bit of both, I guess …

Yesterday morning, Vickie Kaminski, CEO of the lumbering Alberta Health Services public health care agency, unexpectedly called a news conference in Edmonton to announce "cost-containment measures," as instructed by the Ministry of Health on December 22, no less. (Her point, not mine. So why today?)

"As the organization that receives about 30 per cent of the provincial operating budget, it is fair and reasonable for AHS to control costs in light of the current financial position for the province," she said in the press release handed out at the apparently hastily convened event, echoing Progressive Conservative Premier Jim Prentice's No. 1 talking point these days.

But fear not, Kaminski added reassuringly, the cost restraints "will not have an impact on direct patient care."  Among the government's… I mean, the health agency's plans, she said, will be no raises this year for managers, strict control of their cellular phone calls and a hiring freeze, which, if you'll forgive me, if implemented is unavoidably going to have an impact on direct patient care.

There will also be an emphasis on "attendance management," which is management-speak for sick-leave surveillances that many front-line health workers view as little more than harassment to come to work when they’re ill, plus "zero per cent salary increases" for those unions that haven't yet negotiated collective agreements.

Well, we'll see about that, especially in light of Wednesday’s Supreme Court of Canada ruling that blanket bans on strikes like we have here in Alberta, even in the public sector, even in health care, are unconstitutional. Period. End of discussion.

Regardless, there is still a process called "collective bargaining," so no matter what Kaminski says, zero-per-cent increases with unions that don’t yet have collective agreements are either going to have to be bargained or arbitrated.

Unless, that is, Alberta and Saskatchewan decide to use the Constitution’s nuclear option -- the so-called Notwithstanding Clause of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms -- to shore up their anti-labour legislation. Something for both provinces' leaders to think about is that such a plan might have political ramifications outside their own safely conservative jurisdictions, say, along the routes of pipelines for which so fervently they do pray.

Flapping red flags like Kaminski's zero-per-cent comment are being viewed by some in the public sector as an attempt to provoke a wildcat strike to which the government can forcibly react. Alas for the government, if this is so, public sector unions seem to be behaving like grownups and coolly relying on facts, analysis, advocacy and the law to make their case.

Meanwhile, at almost the same moment, Finance Minister Robin Campbell held a news conference of his own encouraging Albertans to answer questions on the government's new online Russian-ballot-style economic survey, which was in many cases clearly designed to lead voters only to the options and analysis the government prefers.

Actually, that characterization is quite unfair. Nowadays the Russians have real elections, and President Vladimir Putin is genuinely popular according to public opinion surveys.

One question on the Alberta survey asks: "To what extent do you think low oil prices impact the Alberta government's ability to budget?" Which rather begs the real question: What makes you think Alberta's Progressive Conservatives have the ability to run a lemonade stand, let along concoct a coherent provincial budget?

As Alberta NDP Finance Critic Brian Mason rather succinctly explained it: "The whole consultation is largely window dressing… They’ve made up their mind on the big questions." Certainly the questions, and the way they're framed, make it pretty clear what the government has decided to emphasize.

Anyway, I am reliably informed Campbell recently told a Rotary Club luncheon that the cuts essential to keep Alberta running in the face of lower oil process will come one-third each from three sources -- revenue, debt financing and cost reductions. And cost reductions, he told the Rotarians, will be the biggest third… So, just as when it comes to Alberta's beloved "flat tax," all Albertans are equal, but bank presidents and oil bazillionaires are more equal.

While all this was going on, Premier Prentice made himself prudently scarce, visiting his new American BFF, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. But for the fact Prentice refused to have his picture taken with the Republican governor, you'd almost have thought Mr. Christie was actually a contender for the presidency of the United States!

Since Gov. Christie has made his presidential ambitions clear, he has not enjoyed Premier Prentice's Teflon-like ability to shed controversy. He has been pilloried for accepting travel expenses worthy of Alison Redford from foreign governments, mocked by the British press for his ample weight while on a U.K. trip designed to burnish his non-existent foreign policy credentials, and investigated by the FBI and federal prosecutors for having state employees block traffic on commuter routes into New York City to punish Jersey mayors who failed to bow to his edicts.

Well, if traffic starts backing up around Edmonton any more than usual, we'll know where Prentice got his tactical pointers. In the morning, though, it's probably just going to be the snow that causes any delays.

Meanwhile, all these press conferences obviously worked in one important regard: They kept the CBC's scoop about the province’s former Alberta chief medical examiner's plan to sue Alberta Justice for wrongful dismissal off the rest of the media’s news agenda for the day.

Dr. Anny Sauvageau said in a statement of claim reported by CBC investigative journalist Charles Rusnell that she didn't have her job renewed as promised after she complained to the Prentice Government it had negotiated a high-cost contract to transport bodies over her objections.

The goal of the contract, according to the filing in her $5.2-million suit, was to please the Alberta Funeral Services Association and score political points in rural ridings. She also included several complaints about the current service, including a case in which a body was said to be transported in the back of a pickup truck.

It hardly needs to be said that if any of this were true -- and it must be clarified that nothing has been proved in a court of law -- not much seems to have changed from the old days of entitlement before Alberta's "new management" took over.


This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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