Alberta's Progressive Conservative government is in full retreat from contentious labour laws conceived during former premier Alison Redford's tenure. The latest concession puts a temporary halt on legislation that would have dramatically redesigned the province's public sector pension plans.
Alberta Finance Minister Doug Horner said Tuesday that the controversial Bill 9, the Public Sector Pension Plans Amendment Act that threatened to shrink pension benefits for public-sector workers, will be referred to an all-party committee. The move pushes a decision on the final form of the law into the fall, at earliest, when the long-governing PCs will have a new leader in place.
The news in Alberta came the same day the federal Auditor-General warned that the financial burden of the public pension plans pose a financial risk for Ottawa, but no one is responsible for carrying out a regular and systematic assessment of whether they are sustainable over the long term. The report examined the pension plans for the public service, Canadian Forces and RCMP, which in 2012-13 carried net liabilities totalling nearly $152-billion.
Critics say the leadership vacuum created by Ms. Redford's resignation in March, combined with the party's low standing in polls, has the government backing away from difficult public policies, including those that have set off a wave of protests and anger from public-sector unions. The spring legislature sitting, originally scheduled to go until June 5, could wrap up as early as this week.
"If you're a government that's sinking into quicksand, why put an anchor around your neck?" said Mount Royal University political analyst David Taras.
Although the government insists it was not politics or polling that changed its mind on pension changes, a recent Insights West survey had the Official Opposition Wildrose party with the support of 50 per cent of decided Alberta voters and the governing PCs at 21 per cent. The Wildrose says the PC party itself, in office for 43 years, needs to answer for its missteps. Others place the blame at the feet of Ms. Redford.
"If Alison Redford were still premier, I'm pretty sure she would have dug her heels in and pushed the legislation through," said Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan, who called Tuesday's announcement an "interim victory in defending defined benefit pensions" at a time when those benefits are being phased out across the country.
Mr. Horner said difficult discussions about the future viability of public-sector pension plans will continue. The legislation laid out changes, such as an end to early retirement benefits paid at age 55 and the end of guaranteed cost-of-living adjustments in 2016. However, the legislation wasn't even supported by the right-wing Wildrose party, which said changes should apply only to future hires.
Although Mr. Horner – who will announce on Friday whether he intends to run in the leadership race – had insisted this year that enough consultation had been done on the main tenets of the bill, on Tuesday he said "upon reflection," further discussions are warranted.
Last week, the government also quietly abandoned its legal fight to uphold Bill 46, the Public Service Salary Restraint Act, a law that took away the right for the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees to request binding arbitration. At the same time, the government reached a four-year deal with the AUPE on significantly more generous terms than originally proposed.
Alberta's interim premier, Dave Hancock, apologized last week for the Redford era – saying at an Edmonton fundraiser that the PC party had taken the support of the grassroots for granted. The party hopes to turn the corner on a period that has seen a drop in support in the capital city, where postsecondary and public sector work are mainstays of the job market.
"This is a sincere effort to avoid electoral defeat," said Alberta NDP Leader Brian Mason of the decision Tuesday to put a pause on public-sector pension reform.
"The government had realized that they were in a lot of trouble. I mean, I'm sorry they had to wait until they were in 20-per-cent public support territory before they realized that they needed to have a conversation with their employees."
MLA Ric McIver is expected to announce his intention to join the race tomorrow. Former federal cabinet minister Jim Prentice and former provincial cabinet minister Ken Hughes have already expressed their intention to run in the coming PC party leadership race.