Jason Kenney & Alberta’s Throne: What the Ghost of Conservatives Past Can Teach Us About the Future
“’When our new administration took over a year and a half ago… we saw uncontrolled spending,” claimed Alberta Premier Ralph Klein in June 1994. In fact, writes Kevin Taft, Alberta had the tightest controls on spending in Canada during the very period when the Klein government has claimed costs were soaring out of control. We are, says Taft, victims of politically induced amnesia and politically reconstructed history.”1Taft, K. (1997, February 1). Shredding the Public Interest: Ralph Klein and 25 Years of One-party Government.
After more than a year of cuts, overtime, and short-staffed facilities, the Alberta Government poured fuel on an already-burning fire by rewarding AUPE healthcare heroes with the promise of pink slips. That was enough. AUPE workers walked out. Now what? It turns out the past might hold some answers.
Wildcats, Political Discourse, & the Alberta Government
“The chink in Klein’s armour began, improbably enough, when 120 hospital laundry workers staged an illegal walkout on Nov. 14 in Calgary after learning that their jobs were to be contracted out to the private sector…On Nov. 22 , the government announced that it was cancelling a scheduled $53 million in healthcare cuts.”2Bergman, B. (1995, December 4). Ralph Klein blinks: Maclean’s.
The destruction of the public health system in the 1990s only ended when the Federal Health Minister Allan Rock, PM Jean Chretien, and Klein had some strong words and a lengthy phone call in May of 2000 – more than five years after healthcare laundry support staff first walked out.3 Of course, this wasn’t the only time the PC government saw labour action from the public sector.
“On July 1 , [Bauni Mackay] took over as president of the Alberta Teachers’ Association. What followed were six of the most turbulent years in the history of the [Alberta Teacher’s] Association…Even before Ralph Klein was elected leader of the Alberta Progressive Conservative party in December 1992, Education Minister Jim Dinning travelled the province with his “Fiscal Realities” show. His message was succinct but potent: spending on education, healthcare and social services was out of control, and the service in these sectors was inefficient and ineffective…”Chretien, Klein call a truce on health care | CBC News. (2000, November 11).
In 1997, more than 18,000 teachers, students, parents, and citizens wearing “Get the Message” scarfs rallied against the PC government’s education cuts. Community support was strong, and it felt like a win. Klein and the PCs eventually agreed to delay or cancel some cuts. “However, the sacrifices teachers made to help the government achieve its fiscal goals were not acknowledged, and the salary cutbacks were not repaid.”
Failing to recognize these sacrifices fits the conservative script. By acknowledging the true extent of the sacrifices teachers and educational professionals made, the PCs would have had to admit that their policies caused harm. They couldn’t afford to do that, and they didn’t have to. Klein had already started reinvesting in public services ushering in The Golden Age of PC Policy and the Reign of King Ralph. And Albertans had forgotten the pains of the past.
In August 1995, after almost 25 years in power and the decimation of Alberta’s public services well underway, two out of three Albertans still approved of Klein’s cuts giving him an approval rating of 63% (down from 72%).5 But here’s the important part: The PCs enjoyed a landslide victory when Alberta re-elected King Ralph and his conservative court just two years after laundry workers walked out. And they won the next four consecutive elections after that. Years later, Alberta showered Klein with awards and accolades. By the time he died in 2013, Albertans sang his praises and demonstrated their love for their favourite premier.
Now, Kenney aims to repeat history and take his rightful place on his austerity throne as an anti-socialist saviour. I’d argue that he’d like to do the one thing Klein couldn’t — successfully implementing private healthcare and education in conjunction with conservative economic enlightenment.
The Conservative Narrative Controls Public Perceptions
Alberta is once again watching its government demand the public sectors fall on their swords in the name of austerity. And just like last time with Klein, they have plenty of time to make us forget; we won’t have another election until 2023. We’re at high risk of repeating history unless we educate ourselves on conservative strategy.
The common theme with conservative governments is the sacrifice of public sector workers. The PCs and UCP push workers with austerity decisions, increased workloads, and job cuts to the point that the public system no longer works. Why? The UCP knows healthcare and education professionals won’t let Albertans suffer. They’ll move heaven and earth to ensure students and patients get what they need. And the UCP looks like economic heroes. For them, there’s very little downside.
Next, the UCP shows the province how broken our public systems are. They use it to justify a “huge reinvestment” into party-favourable policies and ideas (private healthcare and schools). They fix the problem, and the Premier becomes the next conservative king. Meanwhile, those who got screwed and suffered years of cuts stay silent, forgotten by the loud and proud Albertans who celebrate being out of debt. And wildcat strikes risk playing into the UCP narrative, which conservatives have used for decades:
- Actively paint union workers and the public sector as the bad guys with outrageous demands.
- Create division and maintain an emphasis on the importance of debt repayment over the support of social programs, public services, and lazy, Cheezie-eating recipients who rely on them. (Private vs public sector job losses, urban vs rural areas, etc.)
- Discredit any notion of sacrifice or hardship caused by policy decisions.
- Personal stories from people they talk to – aka party supporters and donors – take precedence and discredit anyone demanding answers or acknowledgement for their sacrifices.
- Openly deny the cuts and layoffs have even occurred while obfuscating the truth by reinvesting small amounts that seem bigger when they’re presented out of context.
- Emphasize how much Alberta spends on healthcare and public services in comparison to other jurisdictions without providing the proper context.
- Push the importance of debt repayment and short-term pain for long-term gain (personal responsibility). However, many Albertans fail to understand that government debt doesn’t work the same as personal debt.
- Push these concepts regardless of what type of policy or change they’re discussing.
- When they get cornered (forced to answer something they don’t want to), they deflect and use everything from ad hominem to straw man arguments to avoid admitting anything that might be damaging. Sometimes, they veer off into a completely unrelated topic.
And these tactics will continue to work if Albertans let the UCP get away with it.
Alberta’s Next Steps
The UCP is using the same language, tactics, and playbook that Klein used more than 25 years ago. They know how this plays out. And as far as they’re concerned, Albertans win. UCPers will happily tell you about how well Alberta did after Klein “cleaned up the mess and was finally able to do things the right way.” I would argue that “success” is subjective, and not always worth the sacrifice. If we’re going to keep the cuts under control, Alberta needs to do things differently.
- Change the narrative – Instead of allowing the conservatives to pit Albertans against each other, citizens must band together and define clear lines about what is and isn’t acceptable. (Both the private and public sectors are bleeding jobs. This needs to stop. Healthcare needs some improvements, but destroying a cornerstone of our identity isn’t an option.)
- Validate the concerns of others – The PCs kept getting re-elected because Albertans were more worried about the effect of debt on the economy and their children than the consequences of public sector cuts. The cost of debt to ourselves and our children concerns a lot of Albertans. When the “left” brushes this off, they are just as guilty as the Alberta Government. Listen. Admit that these are genuine concerns. Most importantly, address them. Aim to find a balance.
- Tell your stories – It’s easy to ignore the suffering of others when you don’t know them. Tell your story. Show others that these cuts have real consequences that aren’t just “temporary pain”. Don’t assume that others understand this. Sometimes, we get so caught up in our own worries that we just don’t realize others have worries, too.
- Plan carefully – A strike here, a disgruntled group there, and a rally two months later aren’t going to do it. Combine efforts and work together to maximize the effect labour actions have on the government and Albertans. It’s easier for Albertans to understand how many people are affected when they all stand together. Lastly, it spreads out the pain. I mean, what are they going to do? Fire and fine half the province? They will if they can pick off workers one group at a time.
- Stand together and keep standing – Don’t just stand with healthcare workers one day and feel like you’ve done your job. Stopping the financial slaughter of public services and private industries will take time and persistence. We have to be more stubborn, and that will be tough since we’ve already let them get away with this same behaviour already once.
- Hold them accountable – Don’t take what the NDP or the UCP government say as truth. Investigate. Demand context. Find out what cuts and investments the government made and what those numbers look like on the ground. Find out where the money came from.
- The media needs to be knowledgeable about the topics they cover and stop accepting whatever bullshit politicians feel like telling them. Divide and conquer if you have to. Demanding accountability and facts will improve trust and reliability all the way around.
- Use context to point out hypocrisy. By only ever mentioning cuts, it leaves the door open for the UCP to pat itself on the back for its clever use of sleight of hand with taxpayer dollars. Acknowledge investments, provide the numbers associated with cuts, and explain why UCP policies are screwing everyone. At the very least, the public will have a chance to understand what’s happening. The NDP might look a lot less shifty and maybe a little more fiscally responsible than UCP members currently believe, too.
- Don’t let the government forget – By the time an election came around, the Klein government had spent their way back into Alberta’s good graces. The UCP has already laid the groundwork for this. As MLA Nixon bragged recently, they’ve already completed 75% of their platform and they’re just getting warmed up. By the time 2023 arrives, the UCP will be on a massive spending spree. In reality, these “investments” will only return some of the funds into the systems they came from, and will do nothing to address the irreparable damage they’ve done. Stop falling for it. Remind Albertans of the damage they’ve done every day. Don’t settle for half-assed investments.
- Point out corruption and shitty, self-serving tactics – The UCP seems to really get upset when they get caught doing something shady. And while most of the time, their actions walk the line of legality, that doesn’t mean we should help them hide it. Stay on them. Confront them about it. And don’t let “things die down.” Worst case, just make sure to keep the snow in your driveway shovelled.
- Take Action – I’m not entirely sure Albertans have any recourse outside of protests and strikes. The UCP has made it abundantly clear that you’re “either with them or against them.” And if you’re against them, they don’t want to hear from you. Perhaps Ottawa can step in again? Perhaps some sort of grassroots movement can push for the dissolution of government? Maybe an ethics commissioner can take an honest look at their pattern of behaviour. We might be stuck until the recall legislation is in place or it’s time for the next election. It’s hard to say, but that doesn’t mean you can just complain on Twitter and go about your merry little way. Write letters, demand answers, protest, volunteer, donate to political parties, and do whatever you can to make this difficult. And don’t stop until they’re gone.
Ending the UCP destruction seems like a big task, but we do have some advantages that I don’t think we had in the 1990s. Because of COVID and the oil and gas sector’s near-death experience, society is more rigid – With so many families on the brink of disaster, there’s less wiggle room. While this is never good, Albertans might be less forgiving and forgetful this time around.
We have access to a wealth of information and the Internet, so we can be better informed and find answers to our questions. And we’re better connected with others. Social media can help keep everyone informed, connected, and organized.
Most importantly, this time, UCP cuts and an inability to jumpstart oil and gas have caused 70,000+ job losses in addition to those lost due to the shutdown. Mental health is in the shitter, addictions and overdoses are at record highs, domestic abuse is rampant in Alberta households, and increasing COVID numbers have tempers flaring.
If we can’t dethrone Kenney and stop the destruction of our once-proud-now-bedraggled province, we should at least make sure he never forgets whose blood, sweat, and tears that throne was built on.
“You crushed us to build your monarchy on the backs of our blood and bone. Your mistake wasn’t keeping us alive. It was thinking we’d never fight back.”Tomi Adeyemi, Children of Blood and Bone
If you want to know more about how Albertans were affected by (and reacted to) Klein’s budget cuts, I highly recommend Hughes, Lowe, & Mckinnon, Public Attitudes toward Budget Cuts in Alberta: Biting the Bullet or Feeling the Pain? 1996.
- Taft, K. (1997, February 1). Shredding the Public Interest: Ralph Klein and 25 Years of One-party Government. https://www.parklandinstitute.ca/shredding_the_public_interest
- Bergman, B. (1995, December 4). Ralph Klein blinks: Maclean’s. https://archive.macleans.ca/article/1995/12/4/ralph-klein-blinks
- Chretien, Klein call a truce on health care | CBC News. (2000, November 11). https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/chretien-klein-call-a-truce-on-health-care-1.243683
- Mackay, B. The Klein Years—Chapter One…ATA and Klein government butted heads over public education. https://www.teachers.ab.ca/News%20Room/ata%20magazine/Volume%2088/Number%204/Articles/Pages/The%20Klein%20Years.aspx
- Alberta’s Public Issues Agenda. (1995, October 29). https://www.ipsos.com/en-ca/albertas-public-issues-agenda