Brian jean

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Wildrose Leader Brian Jean is starting to sketch out his party’s policies in broad strokes and, if you’re a public sector worker in a union job or in management, the picture is not a pretty one.

It would be a good idea for public employees to pay attention now to what Jean has to say, while the political stakes for him are relatively low. This is because having established his credentials with the party’s base as an advocate of deep cuts and deep freezes, statements by the leader of the market-fundamentalist opposition on public sector labour policies will likely grow more guarded as an election nears.

In the past few days, Jean has offered up some revealing commentary on how a hypothetical Wildrose government would act in this important policy area.

Naturally, Jean’s comments are clothed in professions of respect for “front-line” workers and the work they do, not to mention promises that the front-line jobs done by nurses, teachers and physicians are safe. But the implications of what he is saying suggest the Opposition party would quickly return us to the days of massive cyclical cuts to essential public services, plummeting numbers of public employees to deliver them, privatization where possible and generalized austerity in the name of living within our (intentionally restricted) means.

So in his rambling response Thursday to Finance Minister Joe Ceci’s budget — part of the Wildrose Party’s efforts to filibuster away the outrage of having to report for work at the ungodly hour of nine in the morning — Jean was soon bloviating about the need to freeze public sector salaries, shrink the size of the public service and, in particular, reduce the number of public service management positions.

Now, I understand that one goal of Jean’s long declamation was rhetorical. He wants to differentiate his party from the NDP government of Premier Rachel Notley and appeal to a sub-set of the population that is actively hostile to public services and the people who deliver them.

Moreover, borrowing heavily from the Harper government playbook — with regular references to “Risky Economic Experiments” and the like — the Opposition Leader would certainly like to leave the impression in the public’s mind that the government is too close to public sector workers and their unions.

Nevertheless, it is said here that his comments reflect a real commitment to public policy the Wildrose Party would implement if it managed to form government.

And so, Jean demanded in the Legislature, “… Begin discussions now with the public-sector unions because now is the right time to start down that path and to talk to them about getting a temporary freeze on public-sector salaries.” (Emphasis added.)

To the political right, as we saw with the Klein and Redford Conservative governments in particular, “discussions” is code for marching orders. In addition, as anyone who understands the mechanics of collective bargaining knows, the impact of temporary wage freezes is permanently lower wages.

Jean said this approach should not apply just to unionized workers — to whom recent court judgments guarantee collective-bargaining rights — but should also be dictated to managerial and excluded employees.

“Wildrose has also expressed its support for (a) mandated freeze many times. That would be for all government managers and non-bargaining union employees,” he told the Legislature, noting that “we have about 6,000 government managers that are not unionized.” Without contracts, easy prey for pay freezes.

As for the size of the public sector in Alberta — and this to me is where the supposed Wildrose commitment to front-line jobs rings false — Jean advocates cuts reminiscent of Ralph Klein’s approach. “We do need to shrink the size of the civil service. We do,” he exclaimed at one point in the Legislature. “We can do that in a number of ways that don’t include any firings, any layoffs. There is a thing called attrition. People actually leave the civil service.”

Well, fair enough, I guess, but this hardly sounds like a scheme for maintaining front-line services. And members of the civil service will recall, often with bitterness, that they were promised no layoffs by Klein too if only they agreed to a pay cut. They did, and the layoffs came anyway.

And remember that in Alberta the reality is many “managers” and “excluded” employees — classified that way by previous conservative governments to keep them from having union representation — are really front-line workers, both in the civil service and health care. So cutting “managers” often equals cutting front-line services.

On health care, Jean stuck to the same theme: “Seven hundred more spaces, more employees, at Alberta Health Services, the fourth-largest employer in the country, and the government is adding more employees.”

It would be a waste of breath to remind Jean that those 700 additional hirings approved by the budget are for front-line positions, and that it is slightly disingenuous to harp on the fact AHS is one of the country’s largest employers in hopes of suggesting other provinces’ public sectors don’t employ similar or larger numbers of health care workers.

Moreover, it must be said, real managers are necessary to run an organization as large and complex as a single hospital, let alone a province-wide health region or civil service.

The next day, Jean seemed to mix up the civil service and Alberta Health Services in an interview with the CBC, telling political reporter Rosemary Barton that “what they have done is they’ve added another 700 people to the public service, which, it’s already an over-bloated public service.”

His solution, pared down for TV, was blunt. He combined the dubious promise to preserve front-line jobs with one to slash the public service: “We would immediately make sure that no front-line positions were lost. Either teachers, nurses, doctors; anybody that serves the public. But then freeze salaries and make sure that we, through attrition and early retirement, we would, you know, downsize our public service. It’s necessary.”

In such circumstances, high-skill health-care workers such as physicians and registered nurses will do what they did when Klein was premier: leave for greener pastures, a reality from which Alberta’s health-care system is still recovering.

Without a doubt, Jean’s approach will appeal to some hardline voters. It is naturally in tune with the market-fundamentalist ideology that the Wildrose Party was created to promote with theological fervour, irrespective of facts or empirical analysis.

But it offers a dark vision for public services — both for the Albertans who need them and the people who provide them. This is worth keeping in mind.

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

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe...