Braid: MLA wage freeze has deeper connotations

By Don Braid, Calgary Herald February 8, 2013 5:44 AM

CALGARY — MLA pay has become such a poisonous subject that the PCs recoil in terror whenever they hear its name.

On Thursday, they made a huge deal of passing a modest motion to refuse any pay hike until March 31, 2014.

This means, effectively, that they’re turning down a 1.1 per cent cost of living increase.

And what group in our beloved Alberta is pressing for a cost of living raise?

That would be Alberta’s doctors, via the Alberta Medical Association, which this week infuriated Premier Alison Redford by raising the MLA pay issue.

The docs jabbed the PCs’ sorest wound, without anesthetic, by saying MLAs are overpaid.

Redford was so annoyed that at a news conference Tuesday, she took the spotlight off the New Brunswick pipeline proposal to refute the doctors’ charge.

That seemed to be that. But on Thursday, PC MLAs staged a bizarre legislature show trial of MLA pay, with themselves as judge and jury.

Their instant verdict? Not guilty.

The larger meaning? No raise for the doctors, not even cost of living.

To further seal the AMA crypt, the group’s president, Dr. Michael Giuffre, has not been invited to Saturday’s big economic summit, either as speaker or observer.

It’s a pointed omission, considering that overall compensation for Giuffre’s members constitutes 8.5 per cent of the entire provincial budget.

Beyond the docs, the freeze says that any labour group, including teachers and government workers, will be lucky to pry a discontinued penny out of the government.

On Thursday, the premier started it all with a tweet: “Proud of my PCAA team for leading by example: PCs will freeze pay and housing allowances today.”

That led to an eruption in the all-party members services committee at the legislature.

Opposition MLAs objected to Redford announcing the decision in public, without notice to them, before it was even debated. How could she do that to an independent committee?

They all know, of course, that this body is about as independent as an inmate in maximum security.

The votes are preordained by the PC majority, sometimes on direct orders from the premier’s office — as happened with last year’s sudden reversal on pay for the infamous no-meet committee.

On Thursday, Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith moved that the proposed freeze be extended until the province finally balances its consolidated books.

Perhaps aware that this date will likely coincide with other science fiction, the government members refused.

In the end, though, Smith voted for the freeze with the shut-off date in 2014. She could hardly do otherwise.

Redford must have smiled when she aimed her final tweet straight at Smith: “Thank you for supporting the PC motion to freeze MLA pay. It’s good to work together to do the right thing.”

Now the premier and crew head into Saturday’s economic summit at Mount Royal University, with the pay thing pretty much off the table.

But here’s another oddity.

The “bitumen bubble” that the PCs keep raising alarms about is shrinking fast.

On Thursday, the price differential between West Texas Intermediate crude and Alberta bitumen was down to $25.50 per barrel, the lowest gap since last October.

This is good for Alberta. Ultimately, it helps the government, too.

But the incredible shrinking bubble does pose a question — is the gap as serious and lasting as the PCs claim, or mostly a mask for other problems?

Don Braid’s column appears regularly in the Herald

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