The line item that shows the NDP can’t clean up Alberta’s balance sheet

How desperate is the Alberta NDP to avoid cuts to public services? There’s a veritable laundry list of ways.
Premiers Meeting 20160721
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley arrives for a meeting of provincial premiers in Whitehorse, Yukon, Thursday, July, 21, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

Alberta isn’t what it used to be, and that’s an assertion that goes beyond politics. Alberta Finance this week said the Fort McMurray wildfire will worsen this year’s economic shrinkage to 2.7 per cent. Between this year and last, the province’s economy is 94 per cent of what it was in 2014. This isn’t one of those cases where 94 per cent is an A+, non-numbers people—but even you can likely see the gut-wrenching problem of this year’s deficit, now adjusted upward to $10.9 billion.

The wildfire and oil price plunge aren’t the fault of Rachel Notley NDP any more than this dreadfully rainy summer. But as chosen captains of the Waterlogged Ship Alberta, the New Democrats are responsible for trying to bucket its way out of these troubles.

There’s little they can do on the jobs front to counter the tens of thousands of departed energy and energy-related jobs, no matter how heavily ministers tout their grants to Alberta’s microbrewers and their workforce of potential hundreds. Notley’s budgeting efforts have shown reluctance to act seriously at rescuing their own leaky vessel, and the premier says repeatedly she won’t be a public-service slasher.

One recently revealed NDP decision shows just how stubbornly this government will refuse to even touch the financial scissors? Proudly preserving the sanctity of … unionized government laundry services.

Alberta Health Services, the gargantuan agency that controls all provincial hospitals and clinics, had yet another CEO hit its revolving headquarter doors last fall, something that had become habitual under Progressive Conservative micromanagers. Turned out a NDP health minister was just a meddler of a different political stripe, according to Vickie Kaminski’s resignation letter. She complained the minister often interfered for ideological reasons, blocking AHS cost-cutting attempts to outsource services many steps removed from the front lines, including food services and laundry.

Edmonton Journal health reporter Keith Gerein dug into the laundry conflict:

“AHS has reached a critical point where the only viable option for sustaining linen services that are core to patient care is to work with our existing linen contract provider and transition AHS facilities to them as effectively as possible,” says a briefing note from June last year.

That provider, K-Bro Linen Systems, has been used for years by AHS to provide medical linen in the Calgary and Edmonton regions, and the health authority planned to expand the contract to include the rest of the province. The executives noted other health regions, including some in Saskatchewan, B.C., Ontario and Quebec, had gone the outsourcing route.

But Health Minister Sarah Hoffman said she personally intervened late last year, telling AHS to look at other options since the strategy ran afoul of NDP policy to prevent further privatization of health services.

The plan would have led to the elimination of 130 to 140 full-time equivalent jobs at AHS.

Of course, these jobs would be replaced by laundry jobs at private facilities, albeit probably fewer and they may not pay up to $20 an hour, and more for supervisors. The hospitals agency warned that without a new way of dealing with bedsheets and towels, it would have to spend between $54 million and $200 million on new laundry facilities, according to documents obtained by the Journal. For that price, the NDP could put a soft dent in needed health centre repairs, if it was willing to leave the industrial hot-wash cycles to non-government entities.

AHS appears likely to find a public sector solution that will cost less (and could reduce its employee rolls, after all). But this episode shows, perhaps in the clearest fashion yet, just how loudly the anti-privatization alarm bells blare at Notley HQ. Few Albertans would shed tears or anxiously grip the edges of Grandpa Dwayne’s wheelchair to hear of money-saving efforts to transfer cafeteria, security or pillowcase-folding duties to outside companies—and few outside of union halls will stand to applaud Notley if she highlights this level of public service job preservation.

But it’s the emergency room, not the laundry room, that the premier talks about when she raises the spectre of her rivals’ austerity ideas. “Their idea was that if you fire thousands of teachers, teachers’ aides, school support workers, nurses, nurses’ aides and people that work in the hospitals that somehow the price of oil would go back up,” she told a Unifor convention in Ottawa this week.

That’s a line Notley has been peddling for nearly a year now, but normally she’s wielded it to demonize the current tack of the Wildrose opposition. In Ottawa, however, she used it to play revisionist history, against the Tory regime she vanquished last May. Unless she’s still waving a protest sign against the 1995 Ralph Klein revolution cuts, she’s misrepresenting the record of all the Tory premiers that followed, who expanded the public sector faster than oil revenues allowed, creating the deficit mess she inherited. The PC dynasty’s final budget in March 2015 did propose a bad-medicine combination of modest budget cuts and assorted tax hikes—earnest efforts to bail Alberta out of chronic deficits, and exactly the sort of unpalatable budget a shrewd premier releases after an election, not before one. But Jim Prentice got that backwards, and this is how we got the Alberta NDP, as it appears today: afraid to trim spending, unlikely to raise taxes further, and hoping that a gradually recovering economy can balance the budget eight years from now.

Remember all that talk about how Jason Kenney’s conservative-unity bid threatened to pull the Alberta Tories far to the right to allow for a Wildrose merger, letting Notley’s party occupy an abandoned political centre? Turns out, it’s not clear the NDP is interested in that turf.