Blue-ribbon panel’s report clearly shows Kenney Government intention to make front-line public workers pay for balanced budgets

The report of the “blue ribbon panel” on the state of Alberta’s finances released this morning contains ominous suggestions the Kenney Government’s fiscal policies will include legislative interference in public-sector collective bargaining, shuttered health care facilities and post-secondary institutions, and increased privatization of health care services.

UNA’s leadership will closely study the report and comments made by Finance Minister Travis Toews and panel chair Janice MacKinnon during this morning’s news conference in Calgary, said United Nurses of Alberta President Heather Smith.

As a clearer picture of what the government intends to do with the report’s recommendations emerges, UNA will consult its members on appropriate responses, Smith said.

However, she observed, the government’s approach is already taking shape quite clearly from the recommendations of the panel and the remarks made during the news conference.

“If this is a government interested in getting the best bang for the taxpayer’s money, many of these recommendations will be dismissed out of hand,” Smith said. “So we hope that the government has not decided just to accept this report without a sound evidence-informed examination.”

“The panel’s chair steadfastly denied Alberta has a revenue problem, which it clearly does, and insisted that the path to fiscal balance must come at the expense of front-line public sector workers like nurses and teachers,” she said.

“I was very concerned to hear talk from the panel chair about increased privatization of health care services, suggestions that austerity measures focus in particular on nurses and physicians, and her reference to “fewer hospitals,” Smith said, noting that as Saskatchewan finance minister MacKinnon closed 52 rural hospitals in that province in the early 1990s.

“Her suggestions government should use legislation to impose collective agreements containing wage freezes or cuts on public health care employees, and divert public funding to non-union private clinics, will deeply concern UNA members,” she stated. “In particular, the recommendation calling for a legislative mandate setting salary levels and back to work legislation shows a clear intent by this government to continue to bargain in bad faith.

“The parties will not even enter negotiations until next year and already the government is planning back-to-work legislation,” Smith observed. “This is a level of arrogance never seen before. 

Interestingly, Smith noted, while the panel recommended austerity for front-line health care providers, including pay in line with that in lower cost provinces, it does call for pay increases for managers and out-of-scope employees.

Among the panel’s 26 recommendations, the following should seven be of particular interest and concern to UNA members:  

  • Recommendation 1: Empower strong, strategic leadership to transform the current health system, using other provinces as models, and engaging nurses, doctors, other health professionals, stakeholders and the public where appropriate. The goal is to establish a health system that achieves better outcomes, provides more appropriate care for Albertans, and approximates the average per capita spending of British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec .
  • Recommendation 2: Establish the following set of outcomes to measure Alberta’s progress in transforming its health system to reflect the needs of 21st century patients and reduce costs . An external organization, independent of government, should review and report annually on Alberta’s progress in closing the gap with comparator provinces on these outcomes.
  • Recommendation 3: Make greater use of alternative service delivery for day procedures and other services that do not have to be delivered in hospitals and could be delivered in private or not-for-profit facilities. The use of alternative service delivery should be applied to other areas beyond health.
  • Recommendation 4: Limit the increasing cost of physician services by providing incentives for physicians to move to Alternative Payment Plans and by renegotiating the agreement with the Alberta Medical Association. Every effort should be made to achieve a negotiated agreement, but the government should also consider its legislative options.
  • Recommendation 10: Establish a labour relations framework that creates long-term goals for compensation in line with comparable provinces.
  • Recommendation 11: End the freeze on non-bargaining staff with respect to providing merit/in range increases to ensure the equitable treatment of all Alberta public service employees (bargaining and non-bargaining) and support the attraction, engagement and retention of qualified staff.
  • Recommendation 12: Establish a legislative mandate that sets the salary levels for all public sector employees, including all fees and other compensation for insured medical and health services and all third parties, and applies to all negotiations and arbitrations . In the event of a strike, the mandate would form the basis for back-to-work legislation.