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Are the Wildrosers eyeing public service pensions? It's worth keeping an eye on what they get up to in Cowtown

Brian Jean

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It was a cartoonish proposal to punish provinces that get in the way of oil companies' plans and pipelines that prompted most of the mocking laughter about the agenda for member policies to be considered at the Wildrose Party's imminent annual general meeting.

But how party members' policy wishes fare on such topics as public employees’ pensions, who gets to set education curricula and who provides health care should be watched closely, and with real concern, when the hard-right Opposition party gathers in Calgary tomorrow and Friday.

If nothing else, the list of the Wildrose Party's 2015 member-approved policy proposals offers a compelling snapshot of the Alberta right's obsessions in the era of New Democratic Party government in Edmonton.

Among the more serious sounding proposals:

  • Stripping public employees of their defined-benefit plans and replacing them with defined-contribution plans
  • Encouraging "competition and choice in the delivery of health care" -- code for multi-tiered private health care
  • Privatizing the operations of the Workers' Compensation Board as well as care for seniors and disabled persons
  • Loosening rules governing private school, charter school and home-schooling curricula
  • Protecting "parents' rights" to choose the education their child receives -- which, unfortunately, is often coded language for permitting students to be taught racism and homophobia
  • Short-circuiting environmental and citizen assessment to let high-intensity livestock operations be hastily approved

Of course, it's hard for an outsider to say for sure which of these proposals has the support of the party's leadership -- some always do, and some generally bubble up spontaneously from any political party's fruitcake fringe, although the dumbest ideas seldom make it onto the agenda for some mysterious reason.

It is to be hoped that the Wildrose Party's Tea Party fringe was behind the nutty idea proposed by members in Finance Critic Derek Fildebrandt's Strathmore-Brooks riding to demand the withholding of federal transfer payments from provinces "that discourage economic activity and significantly limit responsible resource development."

This vaguely worded inspiration betrays a certain misunderstanding of Canada's constitutional arrangements, which makes it easy to make fun of.

It certainly inspired the Broadbent Institute's Press Progress online publication to take an entertaining poke at the Wildrosers, although Press Progress got it wrong when it accused former Premier Ralph Klein of saying, "Let the eastern bastards freeze in the dark." That famous slogan may or may not have graced a bumper sticker -- did anyone actually ever see one? But I very much doubt Klein, for all his myriad faults, ever said any such thing.

Anyway, in fairness, it's not a given that everything on this policy wish list will be passed by the Wildrose Party members at the meeting, or that anything that is will be adopted by the party's legislative caucus.

But it is worth tracking what they do with these motions, because some of them undoubtedly have the support of people who influence Wildrose Leader Brian Jean and the corporate operators who breathed life into the party back in the days of Progressive Conservative premier Ed Stelmach and who are still influential in its affairs.

I could easily be wrong -- as readers know, I'm no Wildroser -- but the list of proposals above strikes me as the real thing, policy goals that have at least some real support among the party’s movers and shakers.

And is it just my imagination, or did the slickly misleading wording of the public-service pension motion show the touch of a professional investment industry lobbyist? Stripping public employees of their pensions, it argued, "describes a common-sense reform that is already yielding results in the private sector and could similarly work in the public sector."

Any of us who have children or friends trapped in precarious work and fear for their futures know the kind of results such developments are yielding.

The motion goes on: "Moving pensions from defined-benefit to defined-contribution models prevents the creation of unfunded liabilities, which are an inherent problem with the former, as a result of constant changes in the size of the labour force and changes in the economy. This statement is fair and balanced as it presents a reform that would be more responsive to change and fairer to employees and to other stakeholders in the long run."

If this passes, it will be safe to say that the days when Wildrose leaders like Danielle Smith and Rob Anderson took some care with public sector pension issues are long gone, and a full-scale assault on public employees' retirement security is forming up in the Wildrose ranks under Jean's leadership.

Other proposals that made the list to be considered by the Wildrosers strike me as being less likely to bear the imprimatur of Jean and his advisors:

  • Making it easier for Albertans to buy and own firearms
  • Allowing university students to opt out of student union fees because students’ councils are run by, you know, "socialist bureaucrats"
  • Banning the use of photo radar
  • And joining (!!) the nation's Harmonized Sales Tax system

But you never know, I guess.

Bears watching. Starts tomorrow. As previously reported, Jean's leadership will also be reviewed tomorrow night … just before the hospitality suites open. It's way down in Cowtown, so likely only mainstream media will be there.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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