By Terry Inigo-Jones,
There was a common theme to many of the speeches made at HSAA’s Annual General Meeting (AGM) at the end of May, only weeks after the Alberta provincial election – change.
The election of a New Democrat government after decades of Progressive Conservative rule was a huge change that many had not seen coming, but most speakers said this was just the beginning. More change is on the way in Alberta – and there’s even hope for change across Canada in this fall’s federal election.
James Clancy, president of the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE), to which HSAA is affiliated, said he’d been coming to Alberta for 30 years.
“I’ve been out here for negotiations, to campaigns and strikes and when I got off the plane last night … it just felt different. There was always this sense that Alberta would never change and yet the people who I worked with … They always held hope. They never lost faith,” he said.
The election result on May 5 meant that there was now hope for the future, said Clancy. However, he warned that challenges still lay ahead, particularly for public-sector workers in health care, and that these would be an issue in the federal election on Oct. 19. In the next few years as unions go to the bargaining table to negotiate new contracts, “we are going to continually run into this argument that there’s no money in the kitty,” he said.
“When you look at the $36 billion that the [federal Conservative government proposes taking out of health care beginning in 2017], what do you think it is going to be like for your negotiators to go the table to try and get you and your members a decent contract?”
The real issue, and one that will be an election issue, is the unfair tax system in Canada, he said.
“In the absence of tax fairness you cannot fund quality public services. They are inextricably linked.”
With fair taxation, with corporations and the wealthiest people paying their share, Canada could afford a national child-care plan and a national pharmacare plan, it could implement national standards around residential and home care, he said.
“We can do better as a nation on a host of fronts. We deserve to do better, our children deserve it. It’s time for change.”
Drew Barnes, the new Wildrose shadow minister for health, agreed the election had changed Alberta.
“To say that Alberta’s political landscape was reshaped on May 5 would be a massive understatement. With the upheavals of the last few months the only thing I’ve become certain about in politics is the uncertainty. While uncertainty can be a cause for anxiety or trepidation, it can also provide an opportunity for hope and optimism,” he said.
“Our new NDP government and the Wildrose share a desire for a public, prioritized infrastructure list … It’s this simple. Infrastructure needs to be built and maintained when and where it’s needed in the most cost-effective manner, meeting the quality of service and care that Albertans expect and deserve. The tens of millions (of dollars) that can be saved by building the plus-1,000 long-term-care beds that we are currently short is a great place to start.”
The change brought by the Alberta election was personal for one HSAA member. Debbie Jabbour, a psychologist working in addictions and mental health, was elected as the NDP MLA for Peace River. She was subsequently elected by the other MLAs to be the Deputy Speaker of the Legislature.
Explaining why she chose to run in the election, she told delegates: “In addictions and mental health, I saw … things that really disturbed me. I saw first hand how the cutbacks affected us. We have a year-long wait list for mental-health services up there. We really struggled to provide quality services up there, and all of you know what that is like.”
She’s now looking forward to being part of positive change for Albertans, focusing on:
• Mental health: Not just for patients but for front-line workers “because we can’t do our jobs if we’re not healthy.”
• Seniors and long-term care: “I have a personal stake in that because my dad is in long-term care and I’m not very happy about some of the things I am seeing. The staff are wonderful but they, too, are working in really, really difficult conditions.”
• First Nations and Métis issues: They “are experiencing some profound social and health issues” and feel like their voices have not been heard until now.
The change was also personal for Bill Moore-Kilgannon, who said his speech at the AGM was his last official act as executive director of Public Interest Alberta (PIA), because he was taking up a new post as chief of staff to the new NDP Minister of Health and Minister of Seniors, Sarah Hoffman.
“In my new role, I’m going to make sure that your voices, your stories, your issues as front-line workers are going to be heard day in, day out in that Legislature. That is a change.”
He said HSAA and other organizations that sponsor PIA had advocated for change in areas including:
• The unfair flat tax on personal incomes: “… because of the flat tax, incredibly wealthy people were able to have the lowest taxes in Canada by far, but middle-income earners like everyone in this room were asked to pay more in income tax than if they lived in British Columbia or Ontario.”
• The lowest corporate taxation in Canada: PIA’s Alberta Could campaign was aimed at showing, in a positive light, what this province could achieve in corporations paid a fair tax rate, by funding health care, seniors’ care, education and child care in a sustainable way.
Ricardo Acuña, executive director of the Parkland Institute, said that he and his colleagues first noticed attitudes were shifting in Alberta in January, with increased media interest in research carried out by the institute, more visits to their website and more calls from people asking for their reports.
“I wrote an op-ed in January that got published in the (Edmonton) Journal and (Calgary) Herald about taxes and about Ralph Klein’s legacy. For the first time in 13 years of writing op-eds for the Parkland Institute I did not get a single piece of hate mail.
“That was the first flag to me that the conversation was shifting,” he said.
However, Acuña had a warning.
“We need to be very careful not to think that the change is here because it’s not yet. We have won the possibility of change, we have won the possibility of new things, of better things that we had been advocating for. But to stop advocating for those things, to stop working for those things right now would be the biggest mistake we could make,” he told the AGM.
Advocacy groups need to push even harder now than in the past, to ensure they take advantage of the opportunity that the election has brought.
“It would be horrible to get this close and then walk away and not see those changes happening.”
Sandra Azocar, executive director of Friends of Medicare, looked forward with optimism.
“We have a fresh start with his new government … finally a party that truly believes in public health and wants to see it succeed,” she told delegates.
“We need to change the corporate culture in our health care that was created after 44 years of Conservative rule in the province. This is a great opportunity to start opening up this public-health umbrella and start bringing back some of the areas that have been privatized by stealth over the years … We need to implement standards of care that truly represent patients’ needs and puts their needs first and foremost.”
Rick Smith, executive director of the Broadbent Institute, looked ahead to the effect Alberta’s election might have on the federal election in October.
“When (HSAA president Elisabeth Ballermann) first asked me a few months ago to speak to you today, little did I know that Edmonton would be the political centre of the Canadian universe,” he said.
Alberta’s election shows that “progressive issues and a progressive point of view can win, do win in Calgary, in Edmonton, all across Alberta and progressive issues are going to win in our national election this fall.”
Smith said the threat of growing income inequality would be a major campaign issue in October.
“Over the past 25 years, in terms of percentage income growth, the bottom 90 per cent of Canadians have had virtually zero per cent income growth in real dollar terms … The very top .01 per cent of income earners have increased their income at the expense of the rest of us by 160 per cent … So, just an astonishing explosion of wealth at the top end of the income spectrum and at the bottom, people dropping off the scale.”
Alberta, he said, was the most unequal province in the country and one of the reasons is that union density here is low, 15 per cent lower than Quebec and five per cent lower than Ontario. “There is a cause-and-effect relationship between union density and inequality. Trade unions are important not just for their members, not just for their members’ families, trade unions are important for the prosperity of all Canadians and that’s why we need more trade unions in our lives, not less,” he said.
However, as bad as growing inequality is in Canada now, Smith warned it could get much worse if the federal Conservatives win the election.
“All the major big-ticket items in the recent Conservative federal budget can only be taken advantage of by higher income earners, in some cases as few as five per cent or 10 per cent of Canadians, and will only benefit those Canadians that don’t need much help anyway,” he said.
Canadians need to be convinced to vote for policies that will improve matters, not make them worse.
“National child care would make things much better for single moms, for families all across this country. Changing the tax loopholes that allow CEOs to pay only 50 per cent of the tax on their stock options or capital gains that the rest of us pay on our earned income that needs to change. If there are any tax breaks to be had, we think those should accrue to the middle class and to working people.”
Despite now being the only Liberal MLA in the Legislature, Dr. David Swann said: “Albertans have decided that change was the order of the day. Hallelujah! … They had the courage to throw out a government that was careless and self-serving and they put in the government that has all of the ingredients of openness, a new set of eyes on the issues of the day, a willingness to try something different, a willingness to put people before profits and, I daresay, a commitment to what I call the role of government to create conditions for health.
“I see many common policies with the New Democrats and I expect to be supporting many of the initiatives they have taken, at least in their platform. I expect to be working with them and holding them accountable.”
Alberta’s new health and seniors minister took time out of her hectic schedule to speak to the AGM, despite being in her new job for only five days.
“The road ahead is both challenging and exhilarating and I’m looking forward to it. Just as your organization’s mission is to enhance the quality of life for your members and society, we are committed to making sure life is better for all Alberta families,” said Hoffman.
“In the weeks and months ahead we are committed to fulfilling what we have outlined in our election platform. These issues include a team approach to care, restoring stability to the health system, opening new long-term-care beds, using hospital space that sits empty to serve patients better and reducing wait times.
Ultimately, as the premier has said, we must ensure that care is provided where it is needed.
“I assure you that our government is committed to protecting and improving public health care. As our platform outlines, we will end the past practice of experimenting in privatization and redirect those funds towards publicly delivered services. This includes looking at how laboratory services are delivered in our province.”
Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL), provided a tangible example of how Alberta’s election has changed the political landscape for him.
Despite being president of the AFL for 10 years and a labour activist for more than 20 years, McGowan had never been invited to meet the cabinet of the government of Alberta – until the day before HSAA’s AGM.
“As I was waiting one of the staff members … noticed that they were running a bit late and I had been waiting for about 20 minutes … and he came up to me and said: ‘I’m sorry, sir, for making you wait 20 minutes.’ I said: ‘I’ve been waiting 43 years.’ ” He continued: “What became really clear to me in that meeting with the cabinet yesterday is that we are on the cusp of changing things in this province in a very significant way.”
However, the work of the labour movement in Alberta is far from over, just because a progressive party is now in power, he said.
“So, what I told the cabinet yesterday is … Now that you’ve won, we are not going to just cede the field, retreat to the sidelines and wait for you to do good things,” said McGowan.
The new government will be under attack from all sides, under pressure from business groups and the conservative media. “There are going to be slings and arrows hurled at them from all directions.”
The labour movement’s task now was to help the government be successful, not just to win elections but to change the province, by continuing to be champions for progressive ideas, by popularizing those ideas so the public supports progressive measures when they are introduced by the government.
“Now, this is our challenge, to take advantage of this moment to do big things like increase the minimum wage, like introduce pharmacare, like introduce a universal child-care plan, like expand pension coverage to people who don’t have it right now,” he told delegates.
“This is our moment, this is our opportunity and you got us here and I just want to encourage you to keep being the kind of union that you are so we can seize this moment.”
NOTE: All political parties who have members elected to the Legislature were invited to send representatives to speak to the AGM. The Progressive Conservatives and the Alberta Party declined.