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Air Canada flight attendants and their supporters protest outside Federal Labour Minister Lisa Raitt's constituency office in Milton, Ont. Thursday, October 13, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/J.P. Moczulski

J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Canadian Press

The federal government's explanation for its intervention in the labour dispute between Air Canada and its flight attendants – that the global economy remains fragile after the financial crisis of 2008 – does not amount to a coherent policy. This rationale does not offer a basis for distinguishing this dispute from one affecting any other sizable company.

On Monday, Lisa Raitt, the federal Minister of Labour, expressed the government's disappointment that the flight attendants, who belong to the Canadian Union of Public Employees, had voted against a tentative agreement between Air Canada and the CUPE negotiators. She proceeded to observe, "Our government's top priority is Canada's economic recovery and Canadian jobs" – which is a good goal and a true proposition, but in the context it amounted to a non sequitur.

Then, on Wednesday, Ms. Raitt referred the dispute to the Canadian Industrial Relations Board, which, under the Canada Labour Code, has the power to order that employees continue to supply their services "in order to prevent an immediate and serious danger to the safety or health of the public." That seems to be quite a stretch in the circumstances. Surely nobody is suggesting that Air Canada passengers would be flown anywhere without cabin crews. But the immediate, practical effect of the referral is to suspend the possibility of a strike or lockout.

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When Air Canada was government-owned and had a dominant position in the market, at times approaching monopoly, the company could reasonably have been classified as a kind of public utility, providing an essential service. And a strike at the airline could reasonably have been treated as systemically harmful to the Canadian economy. But Air Canada is now a privately owned company that has numerous competitors. The government's special interest in the company suggests that Ottawa suffers from something like a phantom-limb experience with respect to this particular airline.

The government's intervention in the Canada Post labour dispute in June, legislating the employees back to work, was not a good idea, but at least there was an intelligible case to be made that the company still provides an essential public service, in spite of great technology. But Air Canada is quite different.

The Harper government cannot be accused of any desire for a command economy or for a series of five-year plans. Occasionally, though, its decrees resemble those of a state-socialist regime. Instead, Air Canada and its flight attendants should be allowed to sort out their problems by themselves.

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