Wednesday, June 01, 2011

When is a contract not a contract?

For the last few days, Premier Ed Stelmach has been blaming teachers — and the Alberta Teachers' Association in particular — for the coming layoffs in schools. According to Stelmach, it is teachers' fault that the government is unable to fund schools appropriately; he is quoted in the Edmonton Journal this morning saying that this year's contractual increase is "'unachievable' for a government struggling financially." Clearly, Mr Stelmach hopes the electorate has a very short memory.

Mr Stelmach's tactics are the worst form of political deceit. The contractual increase is an artifact of the contract that Mr Stelmach initiated in the early days of his leadership. The ATA didn't seek the contract; rather, the government approached the ATA with a deal that would guarantee the province five years of labour peace in education. It was the province, too, that offered the terms tying salary to cost of living; the province also agreed to cover the teachers' unfunded pension liability in exchange for a five-year deal.

In retrospect, such generosity was surely too good to be true. The ATA should have predicted that the government would fail to honour the terms of its agreement. The Alberta government doesn't honour its citizens; why would it honour a contract?

But for Mr Stelmach to blame teachers themselves for the state of the Alberta economy — arguably still the strongest economy in Canada despite the recession — is particularly galling. Mr Stelmach is supposed to be the leader — is supposed to set the agenda for the province. It is by his government's choice that we "cannot afford" basic social rights like health care and education. Perhaps if Mr Stelmach had had the guts to demand an appropriate royalty rate on behalf of the citizens of Alberta, we could "afford" to pay for schools and hospitals. Or perhaps if the Alberta government didn't subsidize tar sands development as richly as it does, sufficient funds could be allocated to citizens' needs — rather than corporations' needs.

Blaming teachers for a mess of the government's own making — for a contract for which Mr Stelmach himself is directly responsible — is flagrantly dishonest. In doing so, Premier Stelmach dishonours himself, his office, and the citizens of Alberta.