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Alberta Premier needs to apply his leadership candidates' rules to secretive cabinet committee

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OTTAWA

Is the Redford-Hancock Government’' Public Sector Resource Committee a cabinet committee, or merely a committee made up mostly of cabinet ministers?

This may sound like a technical and wonkish question, but it is actually an important one that needs to be dealt with by Alberta Premier Dave Hancock in his role of temporary custodian of the latest version of this province's 43-year-old Progressive Conservative dynasty.

After all, Premier Hancock has told the Canadian Press and others that he intends to respect the tradition ministers who launch leadership campaigns must resign their portfolios.

To do otherwise, in Hancock's view, would be to allow a minister an unfair advantage from the publicity opportunities offered by a cabinet role.

Moreover, unstated by Hancock but nevertheless a real consideration, is the practical fear the strategic needs of a given candidates' campaign might influence policy decisions made by ministers in ways that don't properly account for the public good.

Ergo, it's not appropriate for candidates to be cabinet ministers during leadership campaigns because of what amounts to a built-in conflict of interest between the two roles.

This policy, clearly stated by the premier, is relevant to the membership of the somewhat murky but nevertheless clearly important PSRC and because of who its members are -- a list that may be only partly known.

Here's what little we know about the still-all-but-secret government labour-relations committee:

The PSRC seems to have been set up during Alison Redford's premiership while Labour Etc. Minister Thomas Lukaszuk was her deputy premier. Its mandate is a semi-secret, or perhaps a full secret that has partly leaked. At any rate, there's barely a mention of it on the government's web pages or in other official documents, and there seems to be no official description of its mandate.

Lukaszuk is the chair, and presumably the only one the committee has known. It continues to say so on his official Legislature biography, so this at least may be taken as a certainty.

The membership has been reported by the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees to also include Hancock, at least until he assumed the role of premier, Finance Minister Doug Horner, Environment Minister Robin Campbell, Public Service Commissioner Dwight Dibbin and Executive Council Deputy Minister Peter Watson.

The latter two are civil servants, and it is unknown whether they are full members of the committee, junior members or merely advisors who just go to meetings. No one has protested that AUPE's mention of them as members is inaccurate, however.

As for the role of the committee, we are forced to rely on media accounts of Lukaszuk's commentary. In March 2013, well-connected Calgary Herald political columnist Don Braid wrote that, "according to deputy premier Thomas Lukaszuk, who chairs the group, the idea is to impose uniformity across labour deals."

As such, the committee seems to have played a key role in the Redford-Hancock Transitional Government's decision to, as described by the courts, bargain in bad faith with AUPE. It may also have influenced Horner's drive to attack the pensions of rank-and-file public employees.

So it’s fair to say that even if the committee isn’t technically a creature of cabinet, it effectively functions as a cabinet committee playing an influential and often controversial role in ongoing negotiations and relationships with several groups of public sector employees.

The potential for bad policies driven by the exigencies of leadership campaigns should be obvious to all.

Which brings us to the heart of the matter: Horner has already effectively declared himself to be a candidate for the governing party's leadership. Lukaszuk is so widely assumed to be a candidate that, in the absence of a specific denial, he must be considered one.

So as soon as they're officially candidates, since the premier has declared candidates may not be cabinet ministers, how can they sit on a cabinet committee?

This is a worthy question whether the Public Sector Resource Committee's cabinet status is de jure or merely de facto.

Hancock obviously needs to remove any leadership candidates from this committee at once if his fine words about not sullying the contest – not to mention his soaring sentiments about how he values Alberta’s civil servants, the topic of posts passim -- are to be believed.

While his hands are on the tiller, Hancock might also give some thought to living up to his government’s commitment of transparency and disband entirely a committee that functions more like a secret society than a public body!

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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