OPINION | Weekend education cuts announcement 'cowardly' and 'hypocritical'

When the Alberta government announced what is surely the largest mass layoff in provincial history, it didn’t hold a news conference or even have one cabinet minister available to answer questions.

'The government has made a bad situation worse. It has broken its word to education workers and Albertans'

The Alberta legislature in Edmonton, as pictured on February 27, 2020. (Juris Graney/CBC)

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It acted like a thief in the night.

When the Alberta government announced what is surely the largest mass layoff in provincial history, it didn't hold a news conference or even have one cabinet minister available to answer questions.

Instead, it slid the devastating news under the door — via a brief news communique on a Saturday afternoon.

And, in a further attempt to hide its actions before slinking off into the night, the government gave its news release the Orwellian headline, "K-12 education funding temporarily adjusted to match cost."

In this case, "temporarily adjusted," means the government is slashing $128 million from the education budget that will force school boards to cut an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 jobs including those of substitute teachers and educational assistants.

The government's reasoning is that because in-class education is suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there's no need for "non-essential" education workers.

Not surprisingly, the NDP Opposition and unions that represent the workers strenuously disagree, pointing out that teachers, who are putting together programs for students to follow at home, were relying on help from their educational assistants.

And parents of special needs children are also speaking out in support of teaching assistants who were helping students online.

But even if you agree with the "why" of the United Conservative government's announcement, you can't possibly agree with the "how" it was done.

Economists say the government's actions on Saturday will lead to the cutting of one per-cent of Alberta's workforce.

This action from a premier who declared just last month his government would be "obsessed" with job creation.

Perhaps that's why no-one from the government had the courage to stand up to explain himself (hello Premier Jason Kenney) or herself (hello Education Minister Adriana LaGrange).

It is cowardly and, considering how the government praises companies for keeping employees on the payroll during a pandemic, hypocritical.

And then there's the issue of trust.

Two weeks ago, when LaGrange ended in-class instruction because of the pandemic, she assured school authorities they would receive their full funding for the current year.

Then came Saturday when she "temporarily adjusted" that funding.

Yes, the COVID-19 pandemic is throwing everything upside-down. But at least our government should have the backbone to stand in front of Albertans and explain itself.

Instead, the government has made a bad situation worse.

It has broken its word to education workers and, by extension, to Albertans in general.

It has given ammunition to the NDP Opposition and raised partisan hackles just as the MLAs are heading back to the legislative assembly Tuesday to discuss more ways to respond to the pandemic.

And what are Albertans to think of a government that can so flagrantly break a promise just days later —and when it does, it whispers the news when it hopes nobody is listening?

The irony here is that while Kenney — an astute and practiced politician — has opened himself up to be attacked by his critics, Ontario's Doug Ford — not a particularly astute or practiced politician — is being praised for his handling of the pandemic.

"While I can't say I have historically been a fan of @fordnation, I have to say he is doing an incredible job on the COVID-19 file," said British Columbia's Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver via a tweet.

"He has shown strong, decisive and compassionate leadership at a critical moment in Ontario's history."

Weaver praising Ford? It's a wonder Twitter didn't get hit by lightning.

The past few weeks, Kenney has rightfully been front and centre at many government updates on the pandemic crisis to answer questions and reassure Albertans.

But his government's actions on Saturday are a reminder that this is a government that used the pandemic as cover to ram through its controversial, and outdated, provincial budget this month in a matter of hours, and a government that used its majority last fall to fire the election commissioner who was investigating the United Conservatives' 2017 leadership race.

It is a government that, at times, acts not just like a thief but a thug.

It is also a government that deliberately picked a fight with the province's physicians by tearing up its master agreement with the Alberta Medical Association.

It has since backed down, at least temporarily, on its plans to invoke changes to how physicians bill the province for treating patients.

But doctors still feel they're under attack by this government.

On Monday, more than 800 of them signed a letter protesting other changes that are being imposed by the government on April 1 that include how doctors can recuperate overhead costs.

"COVID-19 is spreading like a wildfire in this province," warns the letter that says 400 community clinics across Alberta are laying off staff or considering closure.

"We oppose this government's implementation of harmful actions targeted towards our public health-care system."

Kenney managed to get in a tussle with health-care providers on the eve of a frightening health-care crisis. But he still doesn't seem willing to back down.

Last week, Kenney said the public "should be patient with political leaders" during the pandemic.

But political leaders need to demonstrate they deserve the public's patience.

At the very least, they should be honest with the public.

They should show compassion for Albertans who are losing their jobs.

Even if that compassion is limited to standing in front of Albertans and explaining why the government is forcing them to be laid off.

After all, once this crisis is over, it is the public that will decide next election if it's the Kenney government that should be "temporarily adjusted."


Graham Thomson is an award-winning journalist who has covered Alberta politics for more than 30 years, much of it as an outspoken columnist for the Edmonton Journal. Nowadays you can find his thoughts and analysis on provincial politics Fridays at cbc.ca/edmonton, on CBC Edmonton Television News, during Radio Active on CBC Radio One (93.9FM/740AM) and on Twitter at @gthomsonink.


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