Will our children have the luxury of lounging by the lake? Or will they be worrying about where the next pay cheque will come from?
It's Labour Day again - and we all know what that means. It's the last weekend of summer. The last family picnic of the year. The last boat ride around the lake.
The truth is that - despite the name - "labour" is usually the last thing on people's minds as the holiday weekend approaches.
But this year it may be a little more difficult to take the "labour" out of Labour Day. That's because there are currently two major workplace disputes, involving thousands of workers, going on in the province.
As Albertans head out to the lake or the local park, there's a good chance they'll drive by at least one picket line erected by locked out Telus or CBC workers.
These disputes have focused attention on labour issues partly because they touch almost every community in the province. But more importantly, they're getting attention because they reveal a troubling workplace trend - a trend that threatens to take the bloom off Alberta's flourishing economic rose for thousands of workers and their families.
The disturbing trend that I'm talking about is the trend towards less secure employment - and it's at the heart of a growing number of labour disputes.
Despite Alberta's booming economy, low unemployment and relatively high wages, more and more people in the province are working on a temporary or contract basis. The latest figures from Statistics Canada suggest that only about half of working Albertans have jobs that can be described as long-term or stable - down significantly from previous decades.
The benefits of contract and temporary work for employers are obvious - companies save money by not having to shell out for things like pensions and other benefits. In other words, big business gets to have its cake and eat it too. This is what management types mean when they talk about "flexibility."
But the benefits of these so-called "contingent" work arrangements are more difficult to discern for individuals and communities.
Workers with little long-term job security have a much more difficult time putting down roots and making all the transitions that have traditionally characterized middle-class life in Canada. For example, it's more difficult for them to buy a home, start a family, save for their kids' education, plan for retirement or even set money aside for modest family vacations.
And it's not just individuals who are hurt by the insecurity that comes with a growing contract or temporary workforce.
Job insecurity also has negative impacts on communities, local businesses - and even the companies that make use of contract workers themselves. Who wants to "go the extra mile" for an employer that treats you like a Post-it-Note - something to be used and discarded without a second thought?
This is what the locked-out Telus and CBC workers mean when they talk about job security being their hill to die on.
They're not asking for "jobs for life" as some critics have claimed. They recognize that the economy rises and falls and that lay offs are sometimes inevitable. All they're saying is that if a company is profitable and if it has work that needs to be done, then why not make as many of those jobs permanent as possible?
Of course, the problem of insecure jobs is not restricted to Alberta - it's a phenomenon that's been sweeping the country and, indeed, the world.
But too many companies have been getting a free ride in the public and the press when they characterize traditional permanent jobs with benefits as "old style" and argue that contracting out is inevitable.
This new age management mantra wears particularly thin here in Alberta in 2005 where, thanks to our red hot economy, most firms can clearly afford to do better by their employees.
Before we let corporations like Telus and the CBC get away shedding their obligations to their workers, Albertans and Canadians need to ask: is the kind of society we really want?
Do we want a society where real careers disappear, to be replaced by a string of temporary jobs?
Do we want a society where pensions, health benefits and even vacations become a distant memory for most people?
Do we want a society were a small group of "core" employees have security, while the majority of working families watch their middle class dream slip further and further away?
That's the issue on picket lines around the province this summer - and it's the reality that we may sleepwalk into if citizens and policy makers don't start questioning the desirability of so-called contingent labour force strategies.
Maybe what's needed are stronger labour laws to level the playing field between management and labour. Or maybe we should be talking about portable pensions and benefits that can follow workers from job to job.
Finding answers won't be easy - but it's certainly a debate worth having.
If we don't start asking tough questions - and if simply continue deferring to the wisdom of Corporate Canada - then I worry that future Labour Days may look a lot different from the ones we currently enjoy. Instead of lounging by the lake, you may be spending the weekend in you cramped apartment scanning the papers for your next temporary job.
Let's hope it doesn't come to that - and let's hope that when it comes to Labour Day our children can afford to focus on water skiing and barbeques instead of worrying about where their next pay cheque might come from.
by Gil McGowan
Three Issues Intertwine to Create Powderkeg in Fort McMurray
In recent weeks, Albertans' TV screens and newspapers have flickered with trades workers rallying, marching and protesting against "foreign workers" in the oilsands. One woman walked from Fort McMurray to Edmonton to highlight the problem. The stories never garner the front page, but the issue doesn't seem to be fading away either.
Quite understandably, most Albertans are probably scratching their heads wondering what all the fuss is about? Is this just a group of privileged unionists using xenophobia to keep out newcomers? Or is this a case of employers finding new ways to undercut their wage costs? How is a citizen to make sense of it all?
This is a complex issue that has become oversimplified. As a result, the real issues are being drowned out by a cacophony of charged rhetoric. It is time to take a step back and look at what is really involved.
It is really three issues that intertwine to create a labour relations powderkeg in Fort McMurray.
By Jason Foster
On June 3, 2005, Alberta earned the distinction of being only the second province in Canada to allow 12 year-olds to work in restaurants without a special permit. It did this without consultation, without debate and without informing Albertans about its potential impacts.
Alberta has also earned itself the dubious distinction of being in contravention of the International Labour Organization's Convention #138. This convention is supposed to help prevent child labour in under-developed nations. It says that for general occupations, the minimum age of employment should be 15 years of age, and 13 years of age for "light work". Regardless of whether one considers serving tables "light work", the new rules contravene the ILO Convention. (Unfortunately, Canada refuses to ratify this convention, meaning there is no way to enforce its provisions.)
The question Albertans need to ask is "how young is too young?" Do we want our children working in kitchens and serving tables at the ages of 12, 13 or 14? What does a law permitting 12 year-olds to work in restaurants say about our priorities as a province?
These are valid questions - questions the government has few good answers for. The government claims the change was a technicality, not really changing things for adolescents in Alberta. In one respect they are right, but they are missing a much bigger picture.
Before June 3, a restaurant owner could apply to the government for a permit to employ adolescents. This system, while not ideal and needing to be revoked, at least provided two layers of protection for the child. First, the government had an opportunity to review the employer's record. Do they abide by employment standards rules? What is their safety record?
Second, they had the opportunity to send an inspector to the workplace to check up on the employer, to make sure they were meeting the requirements of the permit. These checks could at least prevent the worst excesses of some bad employers.
The government admits they never did this, and had become a rubber stamp for permit applications. This is not a reason to scrap the permits. It is a desperate call to enhance enforcement of Employment Standards. The government responds to its indefensible inaction by loosening rules, not tightening enforcement.
Under the new system, even those two protections disappear. Now any restaurant owner can hire adolescents without asking government approval. This means the government will no longer have any clue where the children needing protection are. You can't help someone you can't find.
More importantly, the government is sending a message to employers. The permit system created a series of hoops to be jumped that made hiring 12 year-olds the exception, rather than the norm. Creating an industry-wide exemption says that hiring adolescents is business as usual.
The government acknowledges that the restaurant industry is one of its most problematic. It receives more complaints about employment standards violations than any other industry. Why are we giving a carte blanche to employers who can't demonstrate they know how to treat adults fairly, let only kids?
This is quite simply not acceptable. In a province as rich as ours, we do not need to send our kids out to work at such a young age.
The big picture the government is missing is that as a democratic society, we get to decide what our bottom lines are. And I would suggest most Albertans would agree 12 years-old is too young to work in a restaurant. That is our bottom line.
What can we do about it now, you might ask? Good question.
This change was made without consulting Albertans, but it was also made without the knowledge of our provincial politicians. Most MLAs had no idea this exemption was made. I believe it is time for them, as our elected representatives, to weigh in. They have a right to demand the decision be reversed. And you have a right to phone your MLA to demand that they do this.
Albertans concerned about 12 year-olds working in restaurants need to phone their local MLA, ask them if they knew about this, and demand they push to reverse the decision. Tell them 12 years-old is too young to work in restaurants.
If we band together, we might be able to protect our kids.
Byline: Gil McGowan
Real wages (adjusted to constant dollars to correct for inflation) measure what we are actually able to buy with our paycheques. In 1992, when the national economy was emerging from a brutal recession, the average weekly wage in Alberta (in constant 2001 dollars) was $676.79. In 2002, after a decade of "boom times," the figure was just $676.14.
What's important here isn't the minor decline in real wages (about 0.1%), it's that they remained stagnant during a period when they should have been growing.
We live in the richest province in Canada and our economy is creating wealth at a rate that is the envy of other regions. Year after year, we rack up the strongest economic growth and job-creation numbers in the country.
To top things off, Alberta also boasts high levels of labour productivity. According to the provincial government's own calculations : "Alberta's total economic productivity increased at an average annual rate of 1.3% between 1991 and 2001, which was the highest rate in Canada."
Common sense and standard economic theory say that when productivity goes up, so should wages. In the words of former U.S. president John F. Kennedy, a rising tide is supposed to lift all boats.
But that's not happening here in Alberta. The question is: why? Why haven't Alberta's growth and productivity gains translated into increasing real wages, as economic theory tells us they should?
A major part of the answer lies in the labour market policies of the Klein government. Alberta has:
1) The lowest minimum wage in Canada (about ninety cents an hour lower than the national average).
2) Some of the lowest welfare rates in the nation, rates deliberately kept at near-starvation levels to "encourage" welfare recipients to accept any jobs, no matter how low the pay. This policy ensures that minimum wage job vacancies will not go unfilled.
3) The most anti-union labour laws in Canada. The Alberta Labour Relations Code fails to protect the rights of workers who want to join a union. As a result, Alberta has the lowest unionization rate among provinces.
The point is that these policies don't just affect poor people, welfare recipients, or unions - they exert a downward pressure on wages that filters through the entire labour market.
Right-wing pundits and political commentators have convinced many Albertans that allowing the government to attack these "special interests" would somehow benefit the rest of us. But an economy is not a zero-sum game: wage gains won by others don't detract from our well-being. On the contrary, improving wages for one group of workers often means improving wages for others.
When employers and employees negotiate - formally through collective bargaining, or informally as individuals - a number of factors determine the outcome. The wages being paid to other workers in the same labour market are an important one of these factors.
Laws that punish the poor or hamstring unions don't make things better for the rest of us, they help depress everyone's wages. That's the "Alberta Advantage" in a nutshell: energy revenues and a low wage economic policy. When it comes to wages, it turns out the "special interest" group that is being kept down is not some faceless union or welfare mob: it's all of us.
The thing Albertans should be asking themselves is this: are we willing to allow this trend to continue? If we don't improve real wages during the boom times, what will happen when we hit an economic downturn?
Alberta is a wealthy province blessed with abundant natural resources and a highly productive workforce. We don't need or deserve government policies that deliberately victimize the poor and hold down wages.
Tom Fuller is a senior researcher with the Alberta Federation of Labour. His new booklet on wage stagnation in Alberta, entitled Running to Stand Still, was released this week.
The headlines in city papers proclaimed the happy news: a saviour had arisen who would lead the west out from the wilderness. Westerners - and Albertans in particular - would finally enjoy real power at the centre of the Canadian universe! Hallelujah!
The agent of this wonderful change was none other than Anne McLellan - former federal health minister and Liberal MP for Edmonton West. And the occasion for celebration, of course, was the decision by newly-minted Prime Minister Paul Martin to name McLellan as his second-in-command.
Deputy Prime Minister Anne McLellan! And minister of post Sept. 11 overkill ( er& I mean national security) to boot! Cue the trumpets!
You'll forgive me if I don't join the chorus in praise of St. Anne.
You see, I'm one of thousands of left-of-centre Albertans who have watched McLennan's career over the past decade. And to put it bluntly, it has been a huge disappointment.
It wasn't always thus.
I remember back in 1994 when McLellan was making her first bid for election in Edmonton West. Many people who I respect were excited about her campaign.
She's a top professor at the U of A's law faculty, they told me. She's progressive. She's a feminist. She's savvy. Caring. Tough.
I have to admit, it all sounded good at the time. In a province where the forty or so percent of the population that doesn't support the Reform/Alliance/Conservatives is routinely denied representation by the vagaries of our first-past-the-post system, the prospect of electing a "social Liberal" in the Trudeau-Pearson mold was pretty appealing.
Ten years later, there are still some people - many of whom should know better - spouting the "Anne as Progressive" line. The problem is, we're still waiting for evidence.
Anne in Action
Political junkies in Alberta are familiar with McLellan's story. After winning a razor-thin victory in the 1994 general election, McLellan - as one of only a handful of western Liberals - was quickly brought into the Chretein cabinet: first as Minister of Energy and Natural Resources, then as Justice Minister, and most recently as Health Minister.
By virtue of these lofty postings, McLellan became a member of the federal government's inner circle. Despite all the current hoopla about her newest job in the Martin cabinet, the truth is that McLellan has been one of the most powerful and influential Liberals in the country for the past decade. The question is: what did she do with that power? The answer, unfortunately is: not much.
In fact, for all those who believed she would be a beacon of liberal light in a sea of mean-spirited Reform-Alliance darkness, McLellan has proven to be worse than a "do-nothing": she has often ended up supporting the very conservative politicians and policies many people thought she had been elected to oppose.
If you doubt this assessment, let's take a look at her record in three key areas: civil liberties, the environment and health care.
The War on Civil Liberties
Anne McLellan had the dubious honour of being Canada's Justice Minister during the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.
At the time, there was tremendous domestic and international pressure on the government to enhance the security of Canadians and make it more difficult for would-be terrorists to operate in the country.
Given this atmosphere, politics dictated that McLellan had to do something in support of the so-called "war on terrorism": the question was, what?
Unfortunately, McLellan opted for legislative changes that lean more towards the American-style heavy-hand than towards traditional Canadian-style moderation.
The two anti-terrorism bills that McLellan produced - Bill C-36 and Bill C-35 - can best be described as draconian. In the eyes of many, the new laws' broad definitions of "terrorism" essentially act to criminalize legitimate dissent. And they profoundly undermine the rights and civil liberties of Canadian citizens - especial those who have the misfortune of sporting Arabic sounding names or who happen to have been born in Middle Eastern countries.
Significantly, it wasn't only progressives and activists who thought McLellan had gone too far. The list of those vehemently opposed to the new anti-terrorism laws also included such established groups as the Canadian Bar Association, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the Canadian Human Rights Commission and the citizen oversight committee for CSIS.
Today, Canada's anti-terrorism is in place - and some observers say it is at least as much of a challenge to civil liberties as the much reviled Patriot Act in the U.S. The question for supporters of Anne McLellan is this: what happened to her vaunted "progressive" values? And when, exactly, did appeasing the current hard-right administration in Washington become more important that preserving the democratic freedoms of ordinary Canadians?
The next item on the list of "Most disappointing moments" for Anne McLellan came during the debate on the Kyoto Accord.
It was the fall of 2002 and Prime Minister Jean Chretein was finally showing some interest in implementing a "social-Liberal" agenda before stepping down. One of the main components of that agenda was, of course, action on global warming through support of the Kyoto Accord.
Poll after poll at the time showed that Canadians overwhelmingly supported the Accord. People understood the issue of global warming and they saw Kyoto as the first step in dealing with the problem.
Even here in Alberta, the majority of people backed Kyoto. In fact, the only two groups of any note that opposed the deal were the Calgary-based energy industry and members of the Klein government.
And who did McLellan side with in this debate? Did she honour the wishes of own constituents? Did she support the position staked out by her own government?
Unfortunately, the answer to these last two questions is 'no.'
Instead of standing behind the Prime Minister who appointed her and fighting for a policy that the majority of Canadians clearly supported, McLellan chose to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Klein government and their patrons in the energy industry.
To make matters worse, McLellan broke ranks just as the Kyoto debate was reaching a crescendo. And she didn't just choose to abstain from the vote on Kyoto implementation. She threatened to resign unless the government essentially exempted the energy industry (one of our countries biggest producers of greenhouse gases) from Kyoto targets.
Eventually, the federal government decided to go ahead with its plans for Kyoto - and McLellan voted in favour of a watered-down version of the bill to implement the deal. However, there can be no doubt that McLellan's intervention took a great deal of wind out of Kyoto's sails.
Most alarmingly, McLellan's views on Kyoto seems to be very similar to the views held by new Prime Minister Paul Martin. With these two in charge, the likelihood of any meaningful action towards reducing the emission of greenhouse gases seems to have been greatly reduced.
Score one for the oil barons.
Medicare's missed opportunity
Anne McLellan's track record on the Kyoto Accord and terrorism is highly questionable - and it certainly earns her a place on the list of "Most Conservative" Liberal cabinet ministers ever. But those are not the things that people are most likely to remember her for. Instead, if she is remembered at all, it will be as the Health Minister who missed the chance to save Medicare.
It was on her watch, after all, that Roy Romanow delivered his sweeping and widely praised report on the future of health care.
After touring the country, examining health systems from around the world and talking to literally thousands of experts and ordinary Canadians, Romanow concluded that Medicare was worth saving. And he said that the best way to save it was by keeping it public.
In many ways, Romanow made it easy for McLellan and our country's ten provincial premiers. He gave them a detailed and workable road map for reform. And, thanks to his tireless touring, he helped build the political momentum to do big things: Canadians overwhelmingly supported his vision and were willing to get behind major reforms.
But did McLellan take advantage of the ideas and the opportunity handed to her by Romanow? Unfortunately, the answer is no.
More than a year has passed since the Romanow report was released and only one of its major recommendations (the creation of a national health council) has been implemented. All the other recommendations - on things like Pharmacare, primary care reform and rural health care - are all but forgotten.
Obviously, the Premiers (especially conservative Premiers like Ralph Klein and B.C.'s Gordon Campbell) have to shoulder much of the blame for the failure of governments to embrace the Romanow roadmap.
But, as the federal Health Minister, Anne McLellan could have played a leadership role. She could have used the wide public support for the Romanow report as a tool to pressure the Premiers into action.
But she did none of that. In fact, it can be argued that McLellan's interventions actually encouraged the Premiers to reject Romanow. For example, she was quoted saying that private delivery of health services might actually make sense - contrary to all the evidence presented in Romanow's report. And she also made a point of praising Alberta's blueprint for health reform - the controversial Mazankowski report - even though it pointed in an entirely opposite direction from Romanow.
Based on her performance, it's not unreasonable to conclude that McLellan never really wanted Romanow's recommendations implemented - even though most other Canadians did. And it's also not a stretch to argue that her policy of benign neglect played a big role in smothering the Romanow baby in its crib.
Better than a Reformer?
Despite McLellan's track record, there are still left-leaning voters in Alberta who will say: better Anne than an Alliance-Conservative candidate. That's the argument that was used to such great effect by McLellan's camp during the federal election when Stockwell Day was used as the boogie-man of choice.
But you know what? Based on her performance over the past few years - and especially her shocking and profoundly disappointing record on health care, the environment and civil liberties - I've become convinced that a back bench Alliance-Conservative MP would actually have been preferable. Why? Because, they likely wouldn't be any more conservative than Anne has been - and, as opposition outsiders, they almost certainly would have done less damage.
In the end, what's the lesson in all this? It's that we should judge politicians on their actions, not on some misty-eyed nostalgia about the past of their party or on the rhetoric of their followers.
By any measure of her actual record, Anne McLellan fails the "progressive" test. She is a (reactionary) wolf in (liberal) sheep's clothing.
Worse than that, her record suggests that the new government under Paul Martin will be one of the most conservative we've seen in Ottawa for years. So brace yourselves everyone - with Paul and Anne in charge we're about to start a rocky ride back to a more conservative future.
Gil McGowan, AFL Executive Staff
This is clearly a victory for all those workers who have been unfairly denied benefits. But given the government's track record on this issue, we can't assume it's a done deal. We need to watch them like hawks and make sure they don't try to wiggle out of the commitments they've made.
The provincial government first announced a sweeping package of reforms to the Workers Compensation Board (WCB) two years ago. Establishing a tribunal to review old cases was a major part of those reforms - but the idea was shelved by Human Resources Minister Clint Dunford as a result of intense lobbying from business.
Thanks to some very effective campaigning by injured workers and unions, the tribunal is a "go" again. But even though the government has finally agreed to do what it promised to do in the first place there's every reason to worry that the business community and reluctant members of the Tory cabinet will find other ways to make the tribunal a "toothless tiger."
Let's not forget that at one point, Dunford suggested the tribunal could make decisions without offering cash awards. The idea was that injured workers would get the satisfaction of knowing they were right, but they wouldn't get any real financial compensation for their injuries.
It's those kinds of ineffective half-measures that we still have to guard against.
Appointments to the new tribunal will also be crucial - the process will be a sham if injured workers and the labour movement aren't given some say in who sits on the panel.
As AFL president Les Steel said after the government made its long-awaited announcement on the tribunal: "There are a lot of people in the business community who don't want this panel to do its job. If some of those people are appointed to the tribunal, then the whole process will be a farce. That's why we need a say in appointments."
The bottom line is that the government is still not enthusiastic about the tribunal. That's why it's too early to celebrate. Labour activists have to remain focused and vigilant until this baby is actually delivered.
Gil McGowan, AFL Executive Staff
Readers of Labour News will remember that, in our last issue, we reported on the scandal at the union-owned insurance company Ullico. The company, which was set up to provide insurance coverage for union members, invested heavily in Global Crossing, a giant telecommunications firm riding the dotcom wave of the late 1990s. Some directors of Ullico, all of whom were union leaders, were able to buy Ullico shares at a price set by the board. When the company's investment in Global Crossing soared in value, the value of these shares also increased.
When the dotcom bubble burst, however, Global Crossing went into the tank, and it was clear that the value of Ullico shares was also about to fall. At that point, the same directors sold their shares back to Ullico, netting handsome profits for themselves and passing the losses on to the union pension funds that owned the company.
This was exactly the kind of corporate shenanigans that unions consistently criticize, and the scandal caused serious damage to the union movement. Our Labour News editorial argued that unions had to insist on higher standards of behaviour from labour leaders.
Fortunately, that's exactly what happened. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, backed up by Laborers Union President Terence M. O'Sullivan, won the support of the union pension plans, and used that support to force the resignation of CEO Robert Georgine. They also put the directors who profited from the share trades on notice that they will be expected to return those profits.
The union movement owes a debt of thanks to Sweeney, and to the trade unionists who supported him in this fight. Business Week called their decisive action "an example Corporate America should heed." Labour News doubts very much that Corporate America will do so, but we're pleased to report that Labour is keeping its own house in order.
There is a lesson for the future in all this: we can't always rely on the personal integrity of individual union leaders like Sweeney to solve these problems. Union-run pension and benefit funds must always be subject to rigorous oversight, and the directors of these funds held to a very high standard of conduct.
The Ullico story has a happy ending, and the labour movement can be proud of the outcome - we just can't be smug about it.
Tom Fuller, AFL Executive Staff
The Tories say the Bill is little more than housekeeping - that it's simply designed to streamline administration as the province moves from 17 regional health authorities to seven.
Most mainstream media sources have bought into this version of the story. Fewer complicated union contracts? Less red tape? Great! But the reality of Bill 27 is much more sinister than the fairy tale being told by the government. Just consider what Bill 27 actually does:
- It discards in one stroke dozens of freely-negotiated contracts covering thousands of health care workers.
- It transforms the Labour Relations Board from and impartial "referee" in labour matters into an instrument for imposing inferior agreements.
- And, it opens for door for sweeping changes to the wages and working conditions of all Alberta health care workers.
Looking at the details of Bill 27, it becomes clear that this isn't really about streamlining" or reducing red tape - it's about tearing up agreements, weakening unions and trying to squeeze more out of health care workers for less.
Some Albertans might shrug and say "So what? Why should I care about what happens to health care workers and their contracts?"
Two responses to these questions come to mind. First, all Albertans should be concerned whenever the government uses its legislative power to bully its citizens and renege on agreements.
How would business people who supply services to the government feel if the provincial cabinet suddenly tore up contracts with them and said "we're going to pay you less"? That's exactly what's happening to health care workers under Bill 27.
Second, and more importantly, Albertans should be concerned and angry about Bill 27 because of the impact it will almost certainly have on patient care.
For years now, the Klein government has been chipping away at the foundations of our health care system. Budget cuts, staff shortages, privatization - we're all familiar with the what's been going on.
Through it all, the only thing that has kept the system together is the hard-work and dedication of health care workers. They've gone the extra mile - and stretched themselves thin - to maintain high quality care.
And now, what are these workers going to get in return for their commitment? Lower wages. Longer hours. Fewer full-time jobs. More night shifts. Reduced benefits. Less time with their families.
If the government thinks that attacking health care workers will somehow improve the health system, they are sadly mistaken. Sure, they may save a few dollars. But gutting contracts will also lead to lower morale, higher turn-over, and reduced capacity to attract and retain skilled workers.
Unfortunately, it seems that what we have here is a wealthy (and mean-spirited) government that wants to get health care on the cheap - and they plan to do it by putting the screws to people on the front lines.
We think our health care workers deserve better. So do Alberta patients.
Gil McGowan, AFL Executive Staff
But the Prime Minister and the Premiers choked under pressure - and they dropped the ball that had been passed to them by Roy Romanow, chair of the widely respected Royal Commission on the Future of Health Care.
Of course, being politicians, our leaders tried to dress up their failure as success.
For example, there was a lot of talk about the new money that will be spent on health care over the next few years.
Obviously, given the pressure on the system being caused by staff shortages and a growing population, any new funding is welcome.
In fact, the amounts pledged by the federal government are substantial - $17.3 billion over three years and nearly $35 billion over five.
But, as Roy Romanow said shortly after releasing his report last November: when it comes to Medicare, money means little without meaningful reform.
The really frustrating part of this whole situation is that, thanks to the Romanow commission, the First Ministers had a workable roadmap.
They also had the political momentum to do big things: Canadians overwhelming supported the Romanow vision and were willing to get behind major reforms.
But instead of being bold - instead of grabbing the opportunity and the ideas handed to them by Romanow - our leaders decided to do the bare minimum.
The premiers and the federal government failed to measure up in many areas - but there were two, in particular, that stand out.
First, in his report, Romanow said clearly that Medicare needs to be expanded to cover a broader range of services and treatments.
He pointed out that the practice of medicine in Canada has evolved dramatically from the time Medicare was first introduced.
Back then, Canadians received most of their health services either in their doctors' office or in hospitals - and that's what Medicare was designed to cover.
But today - with changes in technology and approaches to health care management - more and more people are accessing services outside of these traditional settings.
Homecare. Diagnostic imaging. Prescription drug therapies administered on an outpatient basis.
These things all represent the new face of medicine - but all of them fall outside of the traditional Medicare umbrella.
Roy Romanow rightly identified these new approaches to medicine as key to keeping Canadian healthy - and he said Medicare should be expanded to cover them.
For Romanow, covering things like home care, diagnostic services and prescription drugs was not only consistent with Canadian values - it was also the economical thing to do.
But instead of seizing on these suggestions, the First Minister did nothing. There was no pledge to amend the Canada Health Act to cover homecare or diagnostics. And there was no agreement on a new national Pharmacare plan.
The First Ministers were similarly silent on a second issue that was central to Romanow and to the thousands of Canadians who made personal submissions to his commission. And that's the issue of privatization.
In his report, Romanow said the evidence on American-style two-tier health care was clear: it is a disaster, both is terms of access and economics. He also expressed grave doubts about farming public health services out to for-profit providers - similar to the Bill-11 style approach to health care being advocated by the Klein Tories here in Alberta.
But on this issue, the First Ministers - once again - failed to step up to the plate.
The federal government could have attached strings to the new money for health care. They could have said "no cash if it's going to be spent on private delivery."
But they didn't do that. Instead - contrary to the strictly targeted spending proposed by Romanow - the federal government will be writing blank cheques to the provinces.
Here in Alberta, that means the money we've all been calling for - the money that Romanow proposed - will be not all be going to the publicly administered and delivered services Canadians cherish.
Instead it will be used to further our province's on-going experiment in market medicine.
In the end, the only people who got what they wanted out of this round of negotiations on Medicare are people like Ralph Klein and others who want to dismantle the system.
By not seizing the moment the federal government and the more progressive premiers have basically given the Klein's, Harris' and Campbell's of the world a green light to proceed.
By doing nothing, they've have betrayed all those who believed in the promise offered by the Romanow Commission. And, in many ways, they have left Medicare more vulnerable than ever.
Gil McGowan, AFL Executive Staff