Opinion: Protect recovery by sparing public-sector jobs

This guest opinion column was published in the Edmonton Journal on Feb. 28, 2017.

In an age of “alternative facts” and divisive politics, we can all agree on this: Alberta needs jobs. Lots of stable, well-paying jobs.

What’s the best way to create new jobs and protect existing ones? To steal a familiar line: “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Surprised to hear the president of a public-sector union discuss the importance of the economy? Don’t be. Public-sector workers get it. We know that a strong economy is good for everyone – for workers in industry, for vital public services including health care and education, and for public-sector workers.

That’s why we’re looking for a budget from the NDP government which will protect our economy. We’re just starting to emerge from the recession caused by slumping oil prices that has led to about 100,000 jobless Albertans being on employment insurance (EI).

Despite calls from some political extremists and lobby groups with vested interests, Premier Rachel Notley and her team resisted pressure to fire thousands of people providing health care and other services.

That was smart. The solution to thousands of Albertans being laid off is not to lay off thousands more. That’s classic austerity politics and it’s been rejected even by those who used to see it as the solution.

Last year, economists at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – formerly the poster children for cutting budgets – looked at austerity and pronounced it a failure. Austerity budgets make recessions longer and deeper. They also increase government deficits, because a weaker economy means a drop in revenue.

Despite this, the same old voices in Alberta are calling for more of it. Make no mistake, what we’re hearing with calls to fire public-sector workers and freeze wages is classic austerity politics. It’s a cynical attempt to create division between Albertans, between those who work in industry and those who work in services. What these people fail to understand is that we are all Albertans and we’ve been facing these tough times together.

Albertans aren’t divided into private-sector families and public-sector families. Many families have seen one wage-earner get laid off from the oilpatch or manufacturing and are now struggling to survive on the salary from one with a public-sector job. Private-sector workers who have lost their jobs still send their children to public schools and go to public hospitals when they are sick.

Firing or freezing the wages of thousands of family members who still have jobs is not only going to damage the economy, it’s going to destroy families.

Alberta can use the next budget to stick to its guns and pursue policies that are starting to work, or it can throw it all away and return to the approach that caused the problem.
Yes, Alberta still needs to address to the real problem – revenue reform. We need a system that doesn’t rely on the roller-coaster of resource prices and is stable enough to allow us to save for the future. However, until we have that solution in place, there’s no risk to temporary deficits and a small level of debt, especially when interest rates are at near-record lows and the money is being put to good use creating and protecting jobs.

Don’t believe the hype about Alberta’s debt. Whether measured against the province’s GDP or in per-capita terms, our debt is far lower than all other provinces. Every other province in Canada would love to be in our fiscal shape.

So, Alberta can follow the lead of Saskatchewan and fire thousands of workers, slash wages and gut services. It can mimic Manitoba as it looks to take money out of the economy by legislating controls on wages and pensions.

Or Alberta can stick to its guns and introduce a budget that is careful with spending, but doesn’t attack families or Albertans who rely on services.

(Mike Parker is the president of the Health Sciences Association of Alberta, which represents about 25,000 health-care professionals, many of whom are about to enter bargaining for new contracts.)