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Bill 6 Update: With the NDP in damage control mode, has the storm passed?

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Oneil Carlier

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Alberta's New Democratic Government went into damage-control mode yesterday, giving the most vociferous critics of Bill 6 what they've been saying they want

Will it work? It's too soon to say. Naturally, the Opposition Wildrose Party -- which has been profiting from the brouhaha -- will try to keep the teakettle boiling. Still, there are signs the storm is abating.

Yesterday, NDP Labour Minister Lori Sigurdson and Agriculture Minister Oneil Carlier jointly announced that Bill 6, the so-far controversial Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act, would be amended to make it clear Workers Compensation Board coverage will only be required for paid farm employees and that Occupational Health and Safety standards apply only when farms employ paid workers.

Since the fierce opposition to Bill 6, which appears to have gobsmacked Alberta's inexperienced NDP Government at a time it expected to be talking about more positive things, has focused on highly emotional and not very credible claims the bill's apparent lack of exemptions from WCB coverage for immediate farm family members threatened the "way of life" associated with the family farm.

Why, farm kids won’t even be able to do their chores without WCB coverage, Albertans who don't really have a stake in the battle but had been half listening were told repeatedly. Many were inclined to believe it at first.

The NDP framed the situation yesterday as the result of a lack of clarity from senior civil servants about what they really intended to do, which is probably true, although they sure would have helped their case if they'd communicated their plans better up front.

And no doubt when she returns to Alberta from the international climate conference in Paris, Notley will be wondering if she has to do everything herself to make sure it's done right.

"We have listened to farmers and ranchers about the need for greater clarity," Sigurdson said in a new release sent to media late yesterday afternoon. "It has never been our government's intention to interfere with what family members, friends and neighbours have always done on the family farm.

"That's why we will amend Bill 6 to make clear what was our intention all along -- that farm families would be exempt from those laws, which were designed to protect paid employees," her statement said.

Said Carlier in the same release: "We appreciate the concerns farmers and ranchers have raised. To be clear, Bill 6 is not in any way going to affect children doing their chores, participating in 4-H, or learning the family business.

"It does not prevent neighbours, relatives and friends from helping each other out during busy times," his statement continued. "It does not apply to recreational activities such as riding horses or hunting on farmland.

"What Bill 6 does is bring Alberta farm and ranch safety standards in line with other provinces, and ensure that if a wage-earning employee is injured or killed on the job, that person and their family have the same access to financial supports as employees in other sectors."

Well, whatever you happen to think the government planned at the start of this brouhaha, their intentions are now pretty clear, and would be hard for them to change course again.

If most of Bill 6's opponents accept this, we will know that they meant what they said about fearing these policies would put their farming lifestyle at risk, even if their fears weren't justified as far as Bill 6 was concerned. And they will be right to count these amendments as a victory.

But if they continue their hyperbolic protests -- Notley was compared to both Stalin and Hitler at a "town hall" meeting in Red Deer yesterday attended by Carlier and Sigurdson -- it will be reasonable for those of us who don't have a dog in the fight to start wondering if some other agenda is at play, and not necessarily one that truly benefits the farm community.

I'm afraid I didn't make it to the Red Deer town hall, but my eyes in the room -- which belong to a farmer, not a government official, by the way -- observed the anger start to dissipate as Carlier kept repeating that the rules would only apply to paid employees who receive a T4 slip.

Carlier also apologized and took personal responsibility for the communications failure, lowering the air pressure even more.

As Alberta farmer Ken Larsen of the Canadian Wheat Board Alliance wrote in his blog yesterday, "what could there possibly be to dislike about Workers' Compensation legislation which not only provides people employed by farmers with disability insurance but makes their farmer and rancher bosses immune from lawsuits?"

The source of the Bill 6 problem in Larsen's estimation? Senior bureaucrats left over from 44 years of market-fundamentalist Tory government who may not have the government's interests -- or those of famers -- at heart.

Wildrose operatives will now be looking for a way to turn the heat back up again.

Next, we'll take a look at the Opposition party's call for election recall legislation, one idea they hope can do the job of reigniting this week's passions.

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

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