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Bill 6, Alberta's new farm safety legislation, will be a test both for the NDP Government and the Wildrose Opposition

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Oneil Carlier

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It's an embarrassing blot on the record of successive Progressive Conservative governments and the premiers who led them that Alberta farm workers have had to wait so many years for common sense farm safety legislation.

Under the Tories, animals had more rights than farm workers in the only Canadian province where farm work was exempt from health and safety laws, farm employees could not legally refuse unsafe work, and anyone who worked as an employee on a farm, no matter how big, had no access to Workers Compensation. Child labour laws? No such thing on the farms of Tory Alberta either.

Under the so-called Farming and Ranching Exemption, the government's health and safety inspectors weren't even allowed to conduct an investigation when a farm worker or a child was killed or seriously injured. Pleas to fix even that, which could have been done through a simple cabinet order, fell on deaf Tory ears.

The thing was, though, farmers big and small didn't want to pay for farm safety, and theirs was a constituency the PCs under a whole string of premiers listened to with care while ignoring the farm fatalities that continued to pile up at a rate of about 15 every year, year after year. There have been about 450 deaths over the past 30 years, 24 of them last year alone.

There were plenty of lame excuses -- usually about how sensible safety regulations would muck up the business of running a family farm, never mind that many of these workplaces were full-scale industrial operations, or that "needless regulations" would place a burden of red tape on farmers.

There were always plenty of calls for more education, whatever that was supposed to accomplish. But legislation that would actually make a difference was simply not on the Tory agenda.

That may now be about to change. We should know as soon as later today. The NDP Government of Premier Rachel Notley -- which has called determinedly over its years in opposition for fair farm safety legislation -- is about to introduce Bill 6, which will be called the Enhanced Protection of Farm Workers Act or words to that effect.

The details of the bill are yet to be revealed, but the NDP's Agriculture Minister, Oneil Carlier, and its Labour Minister, Lori Sigurdson, have called a news conference for this morning on a farm just northeast of Edmonton, so the signs are reassuring.

Nevertheless, this will be a test for the NDP government, because it needs to show that it too won’t fall short on an important question of principle and legislative fairness by failing to give farm workers the full protection of access to occupational health and safety, labour standards, labour relations and Workers Compensation legislation.

At the same time, it will also be a major test for the conservative Wildrose Opposition Party. In our system of government, the role of the Opposition is to propose alternative legislation and governing ideas. But if the Opposition opposes this legislation with the lame old Tory arguments, less family farm red tape and all that, they will be revealed as the same old Tory bag carriers for narrow special interests.

There's a common rhetorical theme emerging in PC and Wildrose circles about how Saskatchewan's finances seem to be doing better than Alberta's because, you know, Premier Brad Wall is a conservative just like them.

But if they're going to hold up Saskatchewan as a model for the new Alberta -- with or without the five per cent sales tax that makes its balanced budgets possible -- they should remember that in that province, occupational health and safety laws have applied to farm workers for more than 40 years.

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

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