The Alberta government announced two panels in the past week, one to study minimum wage, and the other to examine supervised drug-consumption sites. In both cases, the panels appear to have been designed to drive toward a preordained outcome.
Premier Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party won 55 per cent of the vote in April. His government has a strong mandate, Alberta’s biggest since 2001. With a large majority in the legislature, Mr. Kenney does not need to convene outside inquiries before enacting new laws and policies – except if he’s seeking political cover for controversial decisions.
Of the two panels, the one looking at minimum wage is particularly stacked in one direction. Its ultimate purpose is also unclear.
The previous NDP government increased the province’s minimum wage to $15 an hour from $10.20. It rose in stages over four years during an economic slump. In the spring election, the UCP claimed that the higher minimum wage had led to higher unemployment, but also promised to retain the $15 rate. The panel’s mandate is to collect data about the impact on the labour market, and to assess whether workers who serve liquor and earn tips should have a lower minimum, as in several other provinces.
It seems especially unnecessary for a panel to study the situation of servers. Beyond that, one wonders what Mr. Kenney’s government wants to do with the results of the findings from labour-market data. The work will likely lean against the higher minimum wage, given the panel members.
The chair, economist Joseph Marchand of the University of Alberta, argued in 2017 that the increased minimum wage could threaten 25,000 jobs in the province; other economists have said there is little evidence that has been the case. Panel members include a second economist who published skeptical work about raising the minimum wage in Ontario, and people from industry groups that opposed the NDP government’s moves.
It’s true that a higher minimum wage has economic consequences. For one thing, it raises the standard of living of a large number of lower-wage workers, those at the minimum and those a bit above it – which is exactly what it’s designed to do. But the higher the wage is pushed, the more it encourages employers to find ways to reduce staffing, including replacing people with machines. In other words, it’s a medicine that can be extremely useful in treating wage poverty, but which can also have side effects if implemented too quickly or in too heavy a dose.
What should Alberta do in years to come? Depoliticize the minimum wage. In British Columbia, the NDP government appointed an independent commission to advise on regular, measured and predictable increases. The Progressive Conservative government in Ontario quashed the previous Liberal administration’s planned move to $15 and kept the minimum wage at $14. However, it has also said that, as of next year, future increases will be tied to inflation.
Alberta’s panel on consumption sites appears to be better rounded than the minimum-wage group, but it also looks to have been issued with blinders. It will not, for instance, investigate the sites’ possible benefits of harm reduction and lives saved. The chair is former Edmonton police chief Rod Knecht. He has supported the sites, but also questioned them. “What impact does the open drug use in adjacent streets, the filth and offensive graffiti and squalor proximal to the facilities have on the community?” he asked in 2016.
The view aligns with the panel’s mandate, which will consider the social and economic impact on neighbourhoods; “crime rates, needle debris, complaints of social disorder” are the first order of business. It’s entirely reasonable to weigh these in the balance. It would be unreasonable to make them the only things on the scale.
The findings of the panel will help decide on where future sites may be located and could contribute to the province’s criteria for funding such services. The UCP, in the spring, said it would consult on the possible relocating of existing sites.
The UCP is not the first government in Canada to convene purportedly independent inquiries that critics suspect are just a bit of icing on a cake that’s already been baked. Whether Alberta’s work on minimum wage and supervised consumption is a pantomime or an actual investigation of the issues will become clear after the panels deliver their work, and Mr. Kenney makes his decisions.