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Ironic hand of government


The opposition Wildrose Party calls it “blatant dishonesty,” a “flat-out lie,” that the provincial government quietly granted its senior managers in the civil service the same rate of pay raise that they negotiated with their unionized workers — a year and five months after announcing a three-year wage freeze.

The Alberta Union of Public employees calls it an irony.

Either way, it’s more egg on the face of a government that by all appearances has lost control of its agenda.

Last November, the government proposed Bills 45 and 46, which essentially stripped the right of AUPE to act like a union.

The government also made the entire union liable for punishment with fines for anything said by any individual union member.

The government and the AUPE were in contract negotiations at the time.

We’ll see you in court, said the AUPE. In short order, the courts put those bills in abeyance. They died and became irrelevant when a three-year deal calling for a total 6.75 per cent pay hike was reached last month.

In February 2013, citing budget difficulties, the government announced it was “leading by example” and saving taxpayers a total of $54 million with a three-year salary freeze of its pay for top managers. Additionally, said Finance Minister Doug Horner, public sector management would be cut 10 per cent during that time.

No news on any management cuts yet — and there probably won’t be any until the PC Party gets a new leader — but it is policy for the government to give its managers the same deal they give the front-line workers.

There’s the irony, says AUPE. Government said publicly that the managers were worth no pay hike at all, but privately agreed to give them the same rate of pay raise as workers got through negotiations.

That’s 6.75 per cent over three years, on a much larger starting pay envelope for managers.

A cabinet minister’s right hand is the deputy minister — who, by the way, earns rather more than the minister. Three years from April 2014, a deputy minister, who researches, advises and implements the policies of the elected masters, will earn just under $300,000. There are perks, benefit packages, retirement packages, etc., etc. along with that.

The opposition likes to point to egregious examples of government policies and the press likes to print them. And a juicy example for today is Gary Mar, a former cabinet minister and one-time leadership candidate.

He’s hard at work selling the Alberta Advantage in Hong Kong, and he’ll be making salary, plus cash benefits, plus non-cash benefits totalling almost $600,000 a year in Year 3 of this deal — assuming he’s not to become one of the staff cuts under a new leader.

Candidates for the leadership and the premier’s chair have quickly lined up to say they’ll reinstate the freeze if elected.

That’s as hollow as Bills 45 and 46, because these wage agreements will continue at least two years and a general election past the leadership vote. That’s, like, eternity.

Maybe the Tories really are being a whole lot smarter than this situation makes them look. Maybe currying favour with tens of thousands of unionized workers and their managers — plus teachers, doctors, nurses and all health-care workers — in the years prior to an election is a smart thing to do.

Especially when it is so tempting to bait the Wildrose alternative into going out for every government-paid worker’s blood. On the ground, Alberta is squarely in the middle of the national pack for both per-capita spending and per-capita revenue (according to a chart provided by the Alberta Federation of Labour). That makes half the country even worse drunken sailors than we are.

The budget envelope that pays the civil service — from forestry workers to prison guards to social workers and more — is in balance.

There is a lot of upside room on the revenue front, for any party that wants to bring Alberta from the bottom of the global energy royalty list to the middle. Just ask Ed Stelmach how easy that would be. But it’s there.

There’s upside room on the revenue front in tweaking our flat income tax rate, giving low income people a slight cut and high income people a slight rise.

And the economy is booming, employment is high and median wages (especially after taxes) are the country’s best — so you’re a genius if you do nothing at all.

Eventually, there comes a point when you truly cannot believe any government promise. (That’s one reason why the public sector needs to be unionized.)

But cynicism and fear of any alternatives rocking the boat make for a very thin mandate to govern.

Greg Neiman is a retired Advocate editor. Follow his blog at readersadvocate.blogspot.ca or email greg.neiman.blog@gmail.com.

 
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