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Alberta pension 'reform' effort likely dead as PCs and opposition parties refer Bills 9 and 10 to committee

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Former Alberta premier Alison Redford's ill-conceived anti-union project was in shambles last night, with an agreement to send two bills attacking public sector pensions to a legislative committee where they can die with dignity.

With the car in the ditch, wheels spinning and headlights pointed skyward, the Progressive Conservative government of Premier pro tempore Dave Hancock agreed yesterday afternoon to send the two controversial pension bills to the committee, which is supposed to report back in the fall.

If sanity prevails within the PC caucus and the party remains mired at current levels of unpopularity, it seems likely this will lead to the eventual demise of both Bill 9, the Public Sector Pension Plans Amendment Act, 2014, and Bill 10, the Employment Pension (Private Sector) Plans Amendment Act, 2014.

The agreement by Hancock's PC government and all three Opposition parties also suggests the repudiation by Hancock personally of the radical program attacking public service unions and employees that emerged unexpectedly in the second year of the leadership of fired premier Redford, who finally reappeared in the Legislature yesterday.

This is not to say the Tory caucus does not remain deeply divided over the issue, with cabinet members like Finance Minister Doug Horner and Labour Minister Thomas Lukaszuk likely content with the idea of a major fight over pensions while other caucus members deeply fear the potential fallout.

Tory heir apparent Jim Prentice, meanwhile, is said to want nothing to do with someone else's bonehead fight. But who knows? Mere Alberta voters are seldom consulted in such matters.

Some knowledgeable observers suggest the development means the PCs will move quickly to end the agony of the current Legislative sitting.

As for the Opposition, despite major differences of philosophy and policy, the Wildrose Party, the New Democrats and the Alberta Liberals all opposed the bills and promised to repeal them if elected.

Yesterday's not-entirely unexpected development must be partly credited to the intensive lobbying effort by members of several public sector unions who have been visiting the constituency offices of Tory MLAs throughout the province. They have been explaining bluntly what would happen to the votes that saved the PC Party in 2012 if the government continued to push forward with Horner's planned pension changes.

Just as important, though, have been the reservations expressed by municipal governments and other groups that normally see eye to eye with the provincial PCs regardless of who leads the dynastic governing party.

On Friday, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi sent Hancock a scathing letter urging him to reconsider the pension plan changes proposed in Bill 9 on the grounds it would "gravely impact the City of Calgary" and "have a crippling effect on our labour force, our operations and our finances."

If Nenshi seemed too small-l liberal for Tory tastes, today an April 24 letter from Alberta Association of Municipal Districts and Counties President Bob Barss surfaced, expressing some of the same sentiments.

The AAMDC letter may not have been as sharp-toned as Nenshi's epistle, but it must have concerned the caucus that the organization was asking the government "to defer any final decision on the reforms proposed in Bill 9 until … public sector pension plans have completed their actuarial studies based on the proposed changes." After all, the AAMDC is practically a PC Party farm team.

There is rumoured also to have been a similar letter from the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association, but if so, no one has leaked it yet.

There is no guarantee, of course, that this apparent course change will restore the progressive coalition that swung to the PCs in the final hours of the 2012 election campaign. After their experience with Redford, many public employees who have historically backed the PCs are thoroughly disillusioned with the party.

Still, today's developments improve Hancock's and his successor's chances of wooing back some progressives still fearful of the Wildrose Party and concerned NDP or Liberal candidates have no chance in many local races.

The deal saw the Opposition parties agree to end their filibuster of Bill 9 after this evening while the government agreed to refer both bills to the Standing Committee on Alberta's Economic Future for public hearings. The committee is supposed to report back to the Legislature's fall sitting.

But who knows? By then an early election may have been called, notwithstanding Redford’s increasingly foolish-looking fixed election periods law.

NDP Leader Brian Mason today called the agreement "a real victory for the hundreds of thousands of Albertans whose pension was seriously threatened by this legislation -- the next step will now be to make sure that, if the legislation does come back, it protects, strengthens and broadens retirement security for Albertans."

But he really nailed it on Sunday when he told an Edmonton newspaper that agreeing to his motion to send the bill to committee was "the best face-saving direction that the government can take in order to back away from this."

That appears to be what happened today.

The rest of Redford's anti-union program is now in ruins.

Bill 46, the law imposing a contract on AUPE is moot, thanks to a court injunction granted to the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees that prevented the government from enacting the law, followed by a collective agreement between the government and AUPE that rendered the law meaningless.

All that remains tonight of Redford's radical anti-union agenda is Bill 45, which imposed heavy penalties on unions that strike illegally and includes patently unconstitutional bans on advocacy of such job actions. It will be dealt with by the courts, presumably, in the fullness of time.

Tomorrow, barring an outbreak of even more news, we’ll take a look at some of the problems with Bill 10. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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