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Wildrose reaction to proposed raise for front-line health workers illustrates the party's rightward shift

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Rob Anderson

Unhappy Progressive Conservative traditionalists have termed the still theoretical united-right party PC leadership Jason Kenney hopes to create after he wins the party leadership in March, "Wildrose 2.0."

But surely this is incorrect. If the Danielle Smith led Opposition party ginned up by oilpatch operators unhappy with former PC premier Ed Stelmach's plan to get Albertans a slightly better return on the resources they own was Wildrose 1.0, surely the B-Team now headed by Brian Jean is already Wildrose 2.0!

That means that in the likely event Kenney succeeds in uniting the right on his radical social conservative terms, the new entity should be called Wildrose 3.0.

I'm not just saying this to be clever. We've already seen a significant shift to a more radical right-wing position from Wildrose 1.0 to 2.0. With plans to purge the new "united" party of progressive and moderate Tories being openly acknowledged, it's reasonable to predict Kenney intends to double down to a whole new level of ideological extremism.

Evidence of the shift to date? Consider the moderate and cautious approach taken by Smith and then-finance-critic Rob Anderson to the attack on public sector unions by PC premier Alison Redford's government back in 2013 and 2014 compared to last week's commentary by Wildrose Leader Brian Jean and Finance Critic Derek Fildebrandt about the tiny pay increases proposed to a group of front-line health care workers represented by a public sector union.

The difference, it is said here, represents a significant strategy shift from Wildrose 1.0 to Wildrose 2.0 -- from a conscious effort to place the party closer to the moderate centre to angry anti-union rhetoric that clearly aims to position the party further right and appeal to its red-meat base.

If this sounds familiar, it should. It is exactly the strategy used by Donald Trump to win the U.S. presidency … and look where that's getting us!

Redford beat the Wildrose Party in the 2012 general election in part by courting public sector union members.

But once in power, she turned on them. Her government proposed plans to gut their pensions. In early 2014, it passed two unconstitutional laws that imposed blanket strike bans on huge numbers of unionized public-sector employees and stripped 22,000 civil servants represented by the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees of their legal right to compulsory arbitration while imposing a wage settlement on them.

The union reaction to Bills 45 and 46 was predictably determined, in the courts of law and the court of public opinion. But the Wildrose response was unexpectedly thoughtful and supportive of union members.

"Negotiating a collective bargaining agreement that is fair for taxpayers is an important goal," said Anderson in a party news release in December 2013. "It does not give the government the right to terminate the legal arbitration rights of public sector employees."

Calling the substitution of compulsory arbitration for the right to strike "a fair compromise that should be upheld," Anderson said that "for these reasons the Wildrose will be actively opposing Bill 46 in the Legislature and will repeal Bill 46 and reinstate those lost arbitration rights should Wildrose form government."

"The Wildrose is committed to fiscal prudence and balanced budgets," he said. "However, we will not balance the budget on the backs of front line public sector workers and services, nor will we unilaterally terminate the legal rights of any Albertan." (Emphasis added.)

Anderson also showed up at public demonstrations in 2012 defending public sector pensions.

Contrast this with the tone of the Wildrose 2.0's finance critic, Fildebrandt, in his reaction to last week's news a mediator had recommended extremely modest wage increases for health care aides and licensed practical nurses who have been working without a contract since the spring of 2015.

The mediator suggested a deal that would see these front-line health care workers receive a pay increase of 1.2 per cent in the first year and 0.8 in the second, then expire next month. That would mean a raise for 39 cents an hour in the current year for a health care aide earning $19.53 per hour. Members of the highest paid category, professional LPNs with extra education on how to set broken bones, would make just 88 cents per hour more.

The Wildrose reaction? "Pay raises for union employees at AHS can only be described as a slap in the face to struggling Albertans, and the NDP must now draw a line in the sand and freeze public sector salaries," screeched the party's news release.

"This would be a completely indecent move at a time when thousands of hardworking families are worried about how they're going to heat their homes or put food on the table,” said Jean. "Albertans cannot believe what this NDP government is considering doing with their money and they want to see something done in the way of a freeze." (Never mind that some of those families doubtless include LPNs and HCAs.)

It's not clear why Fildebrandt, a supporter of Kenney's PC leadership bid and a frequent poster of intemperate social media attacks, called Alberta Health Services employees paid less than $20 an hour union bosses.

But clearly the days of Wildrose 1.0, when senior party officials like Anderson would promise not to express their mania for balanced budgets on the backs of front-line health care workers are long gone.

Heaven only knows what these people will start calling for once Kenney's supporters have completed their double reverse hostile takeover of the PCs and the current version of the Wildrose, creating a new alt-right variant of the Trump Republicans in its place.

In 2015, weeks before the provincial election that brought the NDP under Premier Rachel Notley to power, the PC government of premier Jim Prentice repealed Bills 45 and 46, recognizing they were likely doomed in the courts anyway. But his action was, as they say, a day late and a dollar short.

By then, of course, Smith and Anderson were Tories too.

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

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