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Alberta Education Minister's War on Teachers signals Tory division, not conspiracy

Anti-teacher sentiment runs deep nowadays in Alberta conservative circles.

Education Minister Jeff Johnson's war with the Alberta Teachers Association over how its members ought to be disciplined on those rare occasions when they misbehave is only the latest manifestation of this phenomenon, which can be traced back to the leadership of Ralph Klein.

But while it is tempting to ascribe this to Klein's failure to complete high school, it surely has more to do with the neoliberal market fundamentalist fantasies that went mainstream in Alberta during his premiership.

As the current front-runner to lead the governing Progressive Conservative wing of Alberta's political right correctly pointed out in late June as he begged Johnson to shut up and let the party focus on surviving the next election, there's no evidence whatsoever parents of students give this supposedly hot topic any thought at all.

"I have met, at this point, thousands of parents in my travels across Alberta and I have yet to have a single parent approach me who is preoccupied with changing how the profession operates or the disciplining of teachers in the classroom," said Jim Prentice, adding plaintively: "Not one parent."

Premier pro tempore Dave Hancock has indicated he has no interest either in pursuing Johnson's crusade.

Yet Johnson is having none of it -- an so the War on Teachers continues.

This has given rise to the theory among readers of this blog, which has now surfaced in the mainstream media, that there's a Tory conspiracy to have Prentice play the good cop to persuade Alberta's restive public service union members to vote PC one more time while Johnson plays the bad cop and convinces Wildrose supporters who instinctively bash teachers to return to the PC Mother Ship.

Edmonton Journal political columnist Graham Thomason wondered, like several Alberta Diary commenters, if the education minister has no support from the current premier and the likely next one, "why is he still being allowed to irritate teachers?"

Thomson's explanation: "One theory is that he actually has the tacit approval of a government that wants to undermine the powerful ATA. In this scenario, Johnston is playing the role of rogue cabinet minister, whose tactics will be disavowed by the government, but who nevertheless will find an excuse for the government to limit the powers of the association."

I don't buy it. Like most conspiracy theories, it's too complicated. And the Alberta PCs nowadays have neither the intellectual horsepower nor the discipline to maintain a deception of this complexity.

Nowadays we can divide Alberta PCs into two rough groups, which I'm going to call realists and ideologues:

The realists are people like Prentice and Hancock who have realized that their mighty ship will sink without the votes of public employees, including union members, and especially including teachers. They want to bridge the rift with the ATA and its members -- at least until they're in a politically more secure position.

The ideologues are people like Johnson, who either have drunk the neoliberal Kool-Aid and actually believe the anti-union and market fundamentalist nonsense inherent in that quasi-religious belief system, or who are cynically bent on busting teachers' unions for the simple reason there are billions of dollars to be made by privatizing public education.

Like neoliberal nostrums on education in other places -- for what's happening in Alberta is just part of a Global War on Teachers -- there is no evidence to suggest Alberta's or Canada's unionized and publicly paid teachers are doing a lousy job. On the contrary, there's plenty to say they’re among the best in the world.

Don't take my word about this, consider what the spokesperson for the Canadian Council of Ministers of Education was saying back in December 2013.

Quoting a major international study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, he boasted that, thanks in large part to their teachers, Canadian 15-year-olds generally were among the world's best in mathematics, reading and science.

"I am very pleased that Canadian youth continue to be globally competitive in terms of their performance," said the spokesperson.

That spokesperson was, of course … Jeff Johnson.

Well, that was then and this is now.

No, it is said here Johnson's knee-jerk attack on teachers and their union today is driven by the ideology of privatization, union-busting and profit from education that infests the Canadian right, and which went mainstream under Klein's leadership within the PC Party and, since then, in its Wildrose offshoot.

You can count on it that Johnson has support for his war on teachers in the rattled and divided PC caucus, so don't expect too much from their big meeting in Calgary Monday.

The simplest and most likely explanation of what is going on within the Conservative Party caucus after the coup that toppled Alison Redford is that chaos reigns and, with no strong leadership, disagreements between caucus pragmatists and ideologues are surfacing and growing bitter.

Hancock increasingly looks like a leader who can't or won't control rebels like Johnson who are sabotaging the party's only chance of survival. So things are likely to continue to slide downhill from here.

If a week is a long time in politics, the more than four weeks until the PCs actually chose a leader and give him the keys to Peter Lougheed's battered old sedan are practically an eternity.

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

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