Edmonton

OPINION | Buckle up: Alberta's political road likely to be bumpy in 2020

The latest chapter of Alberta politics opening next week promises to be a political three-ring circus.

Three-ring circus promises thrills and spills when legislature session opens next week

Premier Jason Kenney will be in the driver's seat next week as the legislative session gets underway with throne speech and a budget. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

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The prognosis was never good for Alberta's doctors.

Their existing master agreement with the provincial government was on life-support the moment Bill 21 passed into law last year, giving the province the power to pull the plug.

The government did just that on Thursday.

Health Minister Tyler Shandro said the government took the unilateral move to scrap the agreement because negotiations with the Alberta Medical Association over a new deal went nowhere.

The government says doctors are paid too much, about 35 per cent more than doctors elsewhere in Canada. The AMA says the government is twisting numbers to suit its political narrative and that Alberta doctors are paid in line with those in other provinces.

Welcome to the first public-sector labour negotiation breakdown of 2020. There will likely be more.

The majority UCP government is still happily exercising its political muscle. If you thought 2019 was a tumultuous year in Alberta politics, get ready for Tumult 2.0.

As Premier Jason Kenney likes to say, "You ain't seen nothing yet!"

The latest chapter of Alberta politics opening next week promises to be a political three-ring circus.

Whips, chairs and juggling acts

In one ring is the legislative session beginning Feb. 25, where the NDP with rhetorical whip in hand will try vainly to tame the Kenney government's aggressive agenda. And keep your eye trained on Finance Minister Travis Toews' high-wire budget act Feb. 27.

In the other ring we'll witness the United Conservative government attempting to juggle sharp and potentially dangerous issues, including labour negotiations with public sector workers, changes to the province's health care system, and a report from the Fair Deal Panel looking at whether we need our own provincial police force and provincial pension plan, among other things.

In the third ring we'll watch with bated breath the gladiatorial battle between Alberta and Ottawa over the fate of the $20-billion Teck Frontier oilsands project.

And let's not forget the clown car of Alberta politics: the Canadian Energy Centre "war room" that keeps us transfixed by disgorging a seemingly endless procession of blunders.

In the great scheme of things, the war room costs a relatively tiny $30 million a year compared with a $50-billion provincial budget. But when the multibillion-dollar budget is unveiled next week, expect critics to constantly refer to the war room's budget as proof the government's priorities are upside down. That $30 million is just the right amount that could be better spent on a myriad of issues, including a school lunch program or money for the handicapped or for more nurses/teachers/police officers.

Timing is everything

What's interesting about the budget, before we've even seen a page of it, is the timing. It's coming just two days after the opening of the spring sitting and the speech from the throne. This is a legislative session with its running shoes on. This is a government still yet to catch its breath after last April's election victory.

Kenney has already said he's not slowing the pace of legislative changes. Last year, his changes included scrapping the provincial carbon tax, rolling back the climate leadership plan, cutting corporate taxes, and pretty much doing all it could to erase the legacy of the NDP government, short of airbrushing the former premier, New Democrat Leader Rachel Notley, out of archived government photographs. Without providing details, Kenney has said this spring's agenda will include a "democratic reform" package.

While the government and the NDP will be battling each other in the legislative assembly, the government will be battling it out with public sector workers. Toews warned the workers last fall that if they won wage increases in arbitration, he'd have to cut jobs. Well, some of them won wage increases. Cutting more jobs from the public sector might gladden the hearts of United Conservative supporters but it will antagonize public sector unions.

Some workers have talked of a general strike across the province. But even if that doesn't happen, there could still be strikes or other labour action by individual union locals later this year.

This at a time when oil prices are down, the provincial deficit is likely to be up, and Kenney's promise of more jobs has gone sideways.

That's why he's pushing so hard for the federal government to approve the Teck Frontier oilsands project. A decision is expected before the end of February. In other words, before the end of next week, a week that will already be jam packed with the drama of a throne speech and a provincial budget.

Let the circus begin.

About the Author

You can find columnist Graham Thomson's thoughts and analysis on provincial politics every Friday at cbc.ca/edmonton, on CBC Edmonton Television News and during Radio Active on CBC Radio One (93.9FM/740AM) and on Twitter at @gthomsonink.

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