With nurses planning to spend much of the day marching on information pickets at health care worksites throughout Alberta to protest the Kenney government’s effort to cut back their wages and gut their collective agreement, Finance Minister Travis Toews issued a statement yesterday morning that appeared to double down on the government’s strategy.
It’s hard to see how declaring war on nurses and throwing the public health care system into chaos as the global COVID-19 pandemic stubbornly continues to make people sick is a good look for a government with popularity issues and half its mandate now completed.
But someone in the United Conservative Party’s strategic brain trust obviously thinks it’s a winning strategy.
Presumably it was the same advisors who decided it would be a bit of a coup to come out with a tough statement just before most of the nurses’ information pickets were scheduled to start.
In the event, Toews’ statement just riled up the nurses and their supporters, who turned out at about 40 sites across the province, more than organizers of the province-wide information pickets expected.
So there was Toews, insisting in his morning news release that the province’s finances are in such a mess that something’s gotta give — and that something is going to be health-care heroes’ wages and benefits now that United Conservative Party has prematurely declared the pandemic over.
Sure, he said, “our government is truly appreciative of the hard work and dedication that health care professionals — especially nurses — have shown over the last 18 months,” but that doesn’t mean they’re not going to be asked to cough up some dough.
This would have been a hard sell at the best of times, even without the pandemic through which nurses and other health care workers were hailed as heroes, or the Kenney government’s truly mind-boggling prodigality with public funds on such follies as the notorious energy war room, its “public inquiry” to intimidate environmental groups, and the breathtaking $1.3-billion bet lost on the outcome of the last U.S. presidential election. (Not to mention vitamin showers for government advisors who happen to be friends of the premier on missions abroad.)
In the present circumstances, let’s just say it’s hard to see how the approach Toews took yesterday is going to help the UCP’s re-election chances in a year and a half.
Needless to say, no one on yesterday’s picket lines was inclined to believe the government’s ritual insistence it appreciates and respects health care workers and the work they did through the pandemic.
To make matters just a little worse, Toews or someone on his staff compounded the error by trying to pin the blame for the state of negotiations — technically with Alberta Health Services — on the nurses’ union by saying its bargaining team had refused to accept informal mediation to help reach a new Provincial collective agreement.
It’s hard to see how a mediator could help with the government instructing AHS to stick with a hard-line approach, but it wasn’t the union that scuttled the idea.
United Nurses of Alberta quickly issued a statement setting the record straight: “Mr. Toews was in error,” it said. “The UNA bargaining committee indicated to AHS negotiators they were free to apply if they wished and UNA would not object or view it as a provocation in negotiations. AHS chose not to do so.”
Indeed, as people kept observing at the various information pickets yesterday, “Albertans love nurses. They don’t even like Kenney.”
Say what you will about the old Progressive Conservative dynasty — whose instincts served it well for about 42 of the nearly 44 years it spent in power — it paid attention to which way the wind was blowing and was always ready to pivot when circumstances demanded.
Its electoral record under six of seven PC premiers suggests this was a successful strategy.
They were a conservative party, at times willing to push quite hard for private approaches to public policies. But they weren’t fools. And when the public showed signs of rebelling, they knew how to back away from an unpopular idea.
And there was always smoothly diplomatic cabinet minister like Gene Zwozdesky waiting in the wings, ready to be sent in to pour oil on troubled waters when the waves of ministerial mismanagement threatened to swamp the Tory ship of state.
Not the UCP. They appear to have no ability or inclination to bend. They have no strategy but to double down. Tyler Shandro remains the minister of health.
Well, the next few weeks and months will be a test.
Sometimes even when you win, you lose.
Do Kenney and Toews have the ability to recognize that reality and govern themselves accordingly?
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 at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald.
Image: David Climenhaga/Used with permission