It should be glaringly obvious by now that in Alberta, like everywhere else where the corporate model of government prevails, the bigger your salary, the smaller the consequences for messing up.

This was shockingly illustrated last week when it was learned that in June 2009 Alberta Health Services, the bloated and inefficient government agency created by Premier Ed Stelmach’s Conservative government to run all public hospitals in the province, had paid huge bonuses to its top executives.

The public health big shots got their money as they approached the end of a fiscal year of spectacular cock-ups and mind-blowing deficits that forced the Conservative government to step in and bail them out in the February 2010 provincial budget.

Indeed, seven times in the first three months of 2010, Conservative MLAs felt the need to reverse major decisions made by Alberta Health Services’ top dogs. Granted, the government did so to save its political skin. But how confident can taxpayers feel that their money is being well spent when the brain trust running Alberta Health Services was rewarded with huge bonuses after its dismal performance in fiscal 2008-2009, which among other things included tripling the health agency’s deficit?

How big are the bonuses? They ranged from $19,000 to $130,000 — on top of the six-figure salaries and solid gold pensions already paid by taxpayers to these same officials, many of them presumably the foreigners with experience in privatization recently recruited from abroad by Alberta Health Services.

No one seems to know exactly how many big wheels received the bonuses, which were paid on June 26, 2009.

So, how do we know what little we do about this disgraceful situation? Well, it was no thanks to the Stelmach Conservatives, who strive mightily to keep embarrassing stuff like this deeply covered up. The information was leaked by the Opposition Alberta Liberals, into whose hands copies of letters to bonus recipients had fallen.

Kevin Taft, the Liberals’ health care critic, observed the rich irony of big payouts given to the agency’s underperforming bosses at the same time as a workplace engagement survey done by AHS shows very few physicians trust the organization to meet its goals.

But don’t worry, AHS has a plan! They intend to take it out of the hides of their employees who actually work with sick people. For example, the AHS bargaining position in contract negotiations with the United Nurses of Alberta could very well provoke months of labour strife and destroy what’s left of the morale among front-line medical staff throughout the province.

If you wanted a perfect illustration of how so-called conservative governments talk about prudence and restraint but spend on themselves and their friends like drunken sailors, this should be it.

And for this we got a plan to close a desperately needed world-class psychiatric hospital, another scheme to shut down 300 acute care beds in the province’s two biggest cities, and a “security” system that will leave rural hospitals unguarded at night, except by nurses. Cue the musicians to play “Send in the Clowns!”

Like the bankers that drove the world’s economy into the toilet, these so-called managers feel they’re entitled to their bonuses, and they’re damned well going to have them. If the optics are horrible, they couldn’t care less.

If this sounds a lot like paying bonuses with public bailout funds, the AHS executives’ only excuse can be that they got in quick and rewarded themselves before the bailout. Did they not understand the fiscal situation they had created, or did they in fact think they were doing a bang-up job preparing the system for privatization?

Alberta Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky sounded uncharacteristically lame when he tried to defend mid-recession bonuses for overpaid managers after a year of under-performance. “You have to engage the best people you can find when you’re overseeing a $10-billion operating budget with taxpayers dollars, when you manage over 400 facilities, and a workforce of 90,000 people,” he told CTV, trotting out the usual bogus argument to justify huge corporate-style salaries for public officials.

Well, if that’s the plan, it’s clearly not working.

If there’s a plan for more bonuses at the end of the 2009-2010 fiscal year, which will be upon us very soon, it clearly must be dropped.

From now on, any bonuses would have to be paid out of bailout funds. This is unacceptable.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog, Alberta Diary.

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...