MacKinnon panel report will set the stage for October budget

Public sector union leaders and front-line workers the workers and their unions are worried about what the MacKinnon panel will recommend in a report set to be released Tuesday morning after the Labour Day long weekend.

Much anticipated report, set for release Tuesday, will recommend ways for Alberta to balance its budget

Public sector workers are concerned the MacKinnon panel report will recommend cutting their wages to help balance the budget. (Kim Trynacity/CBC)

As the Labour Day weekend began, public sector union leaders and front-line workers gathered outside an Edmonton hospital for another informational picket line, just days before the release of a panel report expected to sketch out the map for the Alberta government's financial future.

The workers and their unions are worried about what the MacKinnon panel will recommend in a report set to be released Tuesday morning.

Health-care aide Dolly Osterlund, who participated in the AUPE informational picket Friday outside the Misericordia Hospital, said she is worried the report will include a recommendation to reduce her paycheque.

Osterlund said that's not something she's willing to do, even if political leaders have cut their own salaries.

"I don't think any Albertan should take any rollbacks," said Osterlund. "We all work hard, we all pay our taxes."

Picket lines have cropped up across Alberta this summer since the passage of Bill 9, the Public Sector Wage Arbitration Deferral Act. Alberta's top court is expected to issue a ruling this week on whether an interim injunction against Bill 9, which postpones wage talks until later this year, will remain in place.

'This is 1994 again'

In May, Premier Jason Kenney appointed a panel to look at how Alberta can reach fiscal balance. The panel, led by former Saskatchewan NDP finance minister Janice MacKinnon, was not asked to look at ways to generate revenue. 

Health-care aide Dolly Osterlund wants Albertans to know that her work involves much more than just handing out pills and wiping bottoms. (Kim Trynacity/CBC)

Wage rollbacks and service cuts will almost certainly dominate the MacKinnon panel report, said Mount Royal University political scientist Duane Bratt. 

"They've been telegraphing this for a while," said Bratt, who noted that in the fiscal update released last week the UCP government chose to emphasize the growing debt.

"Their emphasis on balancing the budget will be solely on one side of the ledger," Bratt said in an interview with CBC News. "So I think this will have a direct impact on the budget."

Bratt said he expects cuts recommended by the panel will be as deep and wide as the ones Alberta experienced in 1994 under the leadership of former premier Ralph Klein.

He said he anticipates that public sector unions will be called upon to make tough choices. 

"It's going to be framed in such a way as, 'We're reducing your grant by X amount,' so it might be, 'Do you want to see 50 full-time people leave or a five-per-cent wage rollback?'

"This is 1994 again," Bratt said.

The MacKinnon panel report will be released Tuesday in Calgary, followed by a news conference with Finance Minister Travis Toews.

Kenney has said his government will table a budget when the legislature resumes sitting in late October.

'Very narrow mandate'

A separate review of spending under Alberta Health Services is already underway. Since health care costs the province $22 billion a year, about 40 per cent of the total budget, Sandra Azocar, executive director of Friends of Medicare, thinks that sector will be in the crosshairs of the MacKinnon panel.

"For us, it's a little bit of a farce," said Azocar. "They've been given a very narrow mandate, only looking at expenses. How do you make financial decisions when you only know one side of the coin?"

The head of the  Canadian Taxpayers Federation stands on the grass in front of a building.
Franco Terrazzano of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation says spending cuts are necessary during these tough economic times. (Craig Ryan/CBC)

Franco Terrazzano of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation said the Kenney government was elected on a mandate to bring down the cost of government and balance the books. 

Wage rollbacks and cuts to the public service may be difficult, he said, but many Albertans who work in the private sector have been experiencing that since the economic downturn in 2015. 

"They've seen cuts, they've had to make cuts, and I think they're waiting for the Alberta government to do the same thing as well," Terrazzano said.

If the Kenney government does introduce wage rollbacks, Osterlund wants Albertans to know more about the work she does. 

She said her work is difficult, and involves much more than to "just give out pills or wipe bottoms or something."

There's no emotional switch to turn off at the end of a shift, she said.

"We put people in body bags. We have to deal with that."