​Image: Jason Woodhead/Flickr

Once upon a time, your blogger worked for a famous newspaper publisher who announced one day that since we journos hadn’t had a raise for a couple of years we could expect a small one in six months.

There was a caveat, though. We would only get the raise if we met certain performance benchmarks.

It turned out there was another catch as well. The benchmarks were a secret. And, no, we couldn’t be trusted with that information. Proprietary data, don’t ya know?

Anyway, six months passed. Some of us worked harder. Most of us, hard-bitten cynics who’d been through a few rodeos, didn’t bother. We did pretty good work just the same.

Eventually we were told that we hadn’t met the benchmark, whatever it was. There would be no raise. So sorry. Now get back to work.

We never did find out what we’d failed to achieve. The publisher in question has since passed on to his eternal reward, so we will never know. As is the tradition in our culture, the publisher was swiftly elevated to sainthood, so I won’t mention his name to protect his sacred memory. I will note that the last time I saw Claudia Catteneo, soon to be supreme commander of Premier Jason Kenney’s “war room,” was at the publisher’s funeral.

About that ‘blue-ribbon’ panel of ‘experts’

I was thinking about this yesterday because the report of Kenney’s “blue-ribbon” panel on the province’s finances, another institution of the new Alberta that requires quotation marks whenever it is mentioned in print, is scheduled to be handed to the government today.

But like that long-ago assessment of the worthiness for a raise of those hard-working journalists — otherwise known by Conrad Black as “gangrenous limbs,” suitable for lopping off — its contents will remain a secret for some time as far as we members of the hoi polloi are concerned.

No, the Kenney government will keep it close to its vest for at least another month while United Conservative Party propagandists figure out how to use the “findings” of the panel’s ideologically dependable members to justify big pay cuts for the province’s public employees, not to mention layoffs, service cuts and all the other typical policies plucked from the neoliberal austerity playbook.

As has been explained in this space before, since the mandate of the panel was to do a “deep dive” into the province’s books too quickly to be anything but shallow, and then come up with a formula for getting the books into the black in less than three years and eliminate debt, all without raising taxes or introducing a sales tax, there’s not much mystery about how they’re going to have to do it.

This would be true even if the chair of the so-called “expert panel” (the academic historian and former Saskatchewan finance minister Janice MacKinnon) had not already published her recommendations in a monograph with a well-known conservative economist: use legislation to roll back salaries.

Obviously, as Opposition leader and former premier Rachel Notley observed, it doesn’t seem right for the Kenney government to sit on this information after they have it, seeing as the actual data on which it’s based was prepared by public officials.

Equally obviously, though, nothing like what Notley suggests is going to happen because the Kenney government, using our tax money to campaign vigorously for Andrew Scheer in all parts of the country, doesn’t want to do anything to queer the federal Conservative party’s chances.

And if the public in other provinces were to find out what Kenney plans to do here in Alberta, that would certainly be bad news for the federal Cons. So suggesting the contents of the report will be released in September, even in laundered form, is optimistic. October 22, the day after the federal election, is more likely.

So far, all we get are misleading op-eds

Meanwhile, the ecosystem of partisan Conservative propaganda is gearing up to apply a full-court press to persuade us that the UCP is right and, as Margaret Thatcher used to say, there Is no alternative.

We can expect to be inundated by a tsunami of dubious newspaper op-eds, editorials, public opinion surveys, think tank reports and social media trolling all emphasizing the venerable TINA formula.

First in, on August 14, was a misleading screed by the supposedly non-partisan Canadian Taxpayers Federation, an organization once led by Kenney himself. It was published by the allegedly unbiased Postmedia-owned Edmonton Sun. In it, CTF researcher Franco Terrazzano claimed that because the United Nurses of Alberta contract includes pay increases for experience, “the ‘pay freeze’ for nurses cost $17 million in 2017.”

This is a pretty tendentious argument, but I’ll give the CTF’s crack research team this much: their operatives can file a FOIP request with the best of us.

However, Terrazzano seems to have forgotten or omitted to mention that more than half the roughly 30,000 nurses represented by UNA are at the top of the pay scale and thus are no longer eligible to move up the salary grid.

He also forgot (or omitted) to mention that the information FOIPed by the CTF shows the current UNA collective agreement saved Alberta taxpayers about $56 million.

Oddly, he also didn’t mention the fact there’s a worldwide market for registered nurses, registered psychiatric nurses, and teachers, another profession the CTF doesn’t seem to like very much judging from its frequent attacks on their pay. This means that if we don’t pay them the salaries they can command elsewhere, many of them will go elsewhere.

According to the government’s own figures, Alberta faces a shortage of more than 5,000 nurses in just six years. Consider the wisdom of attacking this group’s pay and job security if you think you might have to make use of the health-care system one of these days.

The CTF’s well-established animus toward public employees and their unions apparently outweighs its market fundamentalist principles.

Interestingly, Terrazzano’s op-ed was the fifth to appear under his byline in the pages of Postmedia’s Alberta newspapers in the past three weeks. Funny how the restriction on the number of op-eds the U.S.-owned media corporation allows partisan groups to submit doesn’t affect the CTF.

But then, as was made clear by recent reports by Canadaland and PressProgress, Postmedia is repositioning itself as a key part of the right-wing propaganda infrastructure, with some suggesting it intends to recast itself as a Canadian Fox News. So its dependence on sources like the CTF should not be a surprise.

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 and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: Jason Woodhead/Flickr

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...