NDP’s mishandling of Bill 6 cost the party its rural support

By , Postmedia Network

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A man takes part in an anti-Bill 6 rally outside the Leduc Recreation Centre on Monday. (BOBBY ROY/Postmedia Network)

In light of the NDP’s complete and utter botching of Bill 6, I’m betting that selection process for naming Oneil Carlier as ag minister in Alberta’s urban-dominated cabinet last May went something like this:

Premier Rachel Notley: “Ah, Oneil, I know you’ve been an organizer for a federal civil service union for the last 13 years, but your riding is sorta rural, right?”

Whitecourt-Ste. Anne MLA Oneil Carlier: “Yes, Madame Premier. The eastern half of my riding snuggles up to St. Albert, Spruce Grove and Stony Plan. But the western half is about as rural as they come!”

Notley: “And you’ve at least been on a farm, right?”

Carlier: “You bet! Lots of time.”

Before he worked more than a dozen years for the Public Service Alliance of Canada, Carlier was a bureaucrat (a geotechnical technician) with Agriculture Canada.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that when the NDP government went to draft a hasty new farm-safety bill this fall, Carlier didn’t see anything wrong with taking a unionist-bureaucratic approach.

At a meeting of nearly 500 angry farmers and ranchers in the gym of the Bassano school this past weekend, Carlier looked like a man begging the tiger not to eat him.

No, no, the Ag Minister pleaded. The government doesn’t intend to make farmers and ranchers treat their children and neighbours as though they were unionized civil servants when they help out on the farm.

“Officials are currently working on amendments that we will share very soon that clarify those intentions,” Oneil entreated as the crowd heckled him, booed his promises to listen to producers’ complaints and chanted, “Kill Bill 6! Kill Bill 6!”

Sure enough, Monday, the battered and bruised NDP introduced amends to Bill 6 that exempt family members of farm and ranch owners (whether paid or not) from the workers’ comp and occupational health and safety regulations the bill imposes on the ag sector. It also exempts friends and neighbours who volunteer their time.

That’s a welcome improvement, but it hardly goes far enough.

Politically, to use a farm analogy: The horse has already left the barn. No sense for the NDP to lock the door now.

Most, if not all of the NDP’s few rural seats, are already lost to them — and the next election is still almost three-and-a-half years away. The way they sought to impose Bill 6 — without notice or consultation, using ham-fisted, bully tactics — has cost them what little rural support they had.

No doubt Wildrose is licking its chops at the high price the NDP are going to pay.

Labour Minister Lori Sigurdson insisted Monday that it was the NDP’s intent all along to exempt family and friends in the regulations that often come out after a bill passed. The government had seen no need to do so in the bill itself, she explained, because they had the best of intentions all along. But they would now rewrite the bill to include a specific family and friends exemption.

“Sure. Sure. You were planning that along,” you could imagine farmers and ranchers saying while they pursed their lips and slowly nodded.

Even after the amendments, Bill 6 will still subject tens of thousands of farmers and ranchers who hire help to onerous new regulations and stacks of paperwork that go with the bill’s new bureaucratic obligations.

There will be at least two unintended consequences.

First, fewer farm workers will get hired because of the added red tape. And more family farmers will sell their operations to corporate farmers who have the clerical staff to file all the mandatory reports and forms.

Just what Alberta needs at the moment: more government, fewer family farms and fewer jobs.