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The Cost of Transparency

Patrick McGee - May 7, 2007

It may be outside his electoral mandate, but Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach has determined five vague principles by which he'll govern his province. In March, the Progressive Conservative government mailed out the vagaries to every home in the province, at a cost to the taxpayer of $230,000. The four-page pamphlet contained the premier's anodyne promise to govern with integrity and transparency, and noted the need for improved accountability from government agencies, boards and commissions. In March, Stelmach announced a $100,000 task force to see how this can be done. They could begin by looking at events that unfolded in April, when a dispute between the province's labour unions and the Alberta Labour Relations Board settled itself, after four years, outside of court.

In 2003, the Klein government passed a contentious labour bill amalgamating 400 health care bargaining agreements to 36, effectively stripping 7,000 health care workers of the right to strike. Not surprisingly, unions were critical. Dozens of members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees demonstrated at hospitals in Edmonton, Lethbridge and Strathmore. Ron Pilling, then CUPE's health care co-ordinator, critiqued the bill for giving "the labour board the absolute power to write new terms and conditions of a collective agreement for each [health] region."

"Like a tsunami, it created a huge effect all across the province," recalls Heather Smith, president of the United Nurses of Alberta, of the complex nature of the legislative changes. "But trying to undo a tsunami would create another." So in April, the unions dropped their court challenge to the bill; in return, the labour board agreed to disclose their previously private advice to the government on crafting labour legislation.

In December 2005, e-mails containing an early draft of the bill were inadvertently sent to the offices of the Alberta Federation of Labour. The draft was written by the vice-chair of the labour board to the government lawyer responsible for the final draft. To critics of the bill, the board was overstepping its limited function of giving non-partisan, technical advice. Labour leaders feel the new agreement will prevent this sort of collusion in future. AFL president Gil McGowan told reporters the new guidelines "created some of the best rules in the country for accountability, transparency and guarantees of neutrality."

It's tough to argue against transparency from government-appointed authorities. But a bigger issue--the rights of workers who don't wish to be unionized--remains unaddressed in Canada, says John Mortimer, president of the Canadian Labour Watch Association. "The fundamental issue remains that there is no effective voice for union-free employees . . . You can't count on a union, or management, to speak for employees who would like not to be unionized," he says. That might be a battle Stelmach wants to take up after he wins a mandate.

More articles by Patrick McGee