A question for Premier Dave Hancock: Who will rid Alberta’s Tories of their turbulent Education Minister?

Posted on July 04, 2014, 1:18 am
10 mins

Education Minister Jeff Johnson flips burgers at Alison Redford’s K-Days Breakfast, last year. A sign of things to come for Mr. Johnson? Below: Premier Dave Hancock, who knows what he needs to do, former premier Redford, who knew exactly what she wanted, and Alberta Information Commissioner Jill Clayton, who knows the law.

Now that we know Education Minister Jeff Johnson or someone in his office broke Alberta’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act to send an email to more than 34,000 teachers back in 2013, is it time for Dave Hancock to start acting like he really is Alberta’s Premier and kick Mr. Johnson out of cabinet?

Mr. Johnson has been behaving like the proverbial bull in the china shop for months in his ongoing feud with Alberta’s teachers and the Alberta Teachers Association, their combined union and regulatory body.

But back in the days when Alison Redford was premier and the Progressive Conservative government was in a state of open warfare with all manner of public employees, Mr. Johnson was arguably just following orders.

Ms. Redford is no longer the premier, though, and lately the government has been trying hard to patch up its relationship with the public employees who saved its bacon in the closely fought 2012 election, including the province’s public and Catholic schoolteachers. Jim Prentice, the front-runner in the party leadership race to permanently replace Ms. Redford, has promised to try even harder. Premier Hancock has made gentle cooing noises too.

But Mr. Johnson – who apparently didn’t get the memo from either the premier pro tem or the premier apparent – just goes on, day after day, fighting the war with the teachers, digging the foundering PC party into an ever-deepening hole with a large group of potential allies.

Mr. Johnson isn’t the first Tory education minister to have a pointless scrap with the ATA – the names Lyle Oberg, who served in the job for premier Ralph Klein, and Ron Liepert, who did it for premier Ed Stelmach, spring immediately to mind. But he is the first to actually threaten the government’s survival with his antics.

After outraging the ATA by overruling some of its disciplinary actions, which Mr. Johnson deemed insufficiently harsh, just this week the minister demanded a decade’s worth of disciplinary reports be handed over to him by the province’s 61 school boards in the next two weeks.

That he had been asked, in effect, to please not do that kind of stuff any more by Mr. Prentice, presumably because it so obviously undermines the heir apparent’s charm offensive to public employees, apparently made not a whit of difference to Mr. Johnson.

No sooner had the ATA reacted angrily to that, than Alberta Privacy Commissioner Jill Clayton issued a report yesterday that confirmed – just as the ATA had alleged when it asked for an investigation of the emails, which were sent in February 2013 – that the mass mailing was illegal under the FOIP Act.

Mr. Johnson’s purpose in sending the February 2013 email was to wade into the teachers’ negotiations for new contracts with the province’s 61 school boards that were then ongoing. From a labour-relations perspective, that too was a pretty iffy strategy – an effort to go around their bargaining teams and negotiate directly with teachers.

In the email, he told teachers that their negotiations were over and the province would never budge on what it had offered them: a three-year wage freeze and a wage increase of only 2 per cent in the fourth year. Some of the emails the government had on file were personal, though, and it was those the ATA complained about and Ms. Clayton confirmed the minister had no right to use under the FOIP Act.

From the government’s perspective, Ms. Clayton’s timing for releasing her report could hardly have been more inauspicious!

Or … maybe not. In every crisis, as the business gurus are always telling us, lie the seeds of opportunity.

Ms. Clayton’s report could be Premier Hancock’s opportunity to rid himself of this turbulent education minister who refuses to play by the new rules.

Maybe Mr. Johnson didn’t care and instructed his department to ignore the FOIP law. Maybe it was just a mistake. Maybe it was a mistake by a minor official.

Under the doctrine of ministerial responsibility, though, it really doesn’t matter.

“According to the doctrine,” says my favourite Canadian politics textbook, “the minister who heads each department must be accountable to the House of Commons (or the provincial Legislature) for the conduct of each and every civil servant working in that department.”

“On the most basic level, this means that ministers may be asked in the House to investigate allegations of incompetence or impropriety in their departments and take appropriate measures,” explain authors Patrick Malcolmson and Richard Meyers in The Canadian Regime.

“If the incompetence or impropriety is substantial and may be attributed to poor management, however, the stakes become much higher,” they write. “Under the doctrine of ministerial responsibility the minister must take personal responsibility for major problems of mismanagement.

“In more serious cases of mismanagement, this means the minister must resign.”

Under the circumstances, this is a pretty serious case of mismanagement.

And if the minister won’t resign, his boss – no matter what deals were made in caucus when Ms. Redford was overthrown in March – is within his rights to fire him.

If Mr. Hancock won’t do that, now that the troublesome Mr. Johnson has been found to be in a serious violation of privacy law, one of two conclusions is inescapable:

  1. The rules in Alberta still only apply to the rest of us, never to the PC Government or its friends – all that talk about an end to entitlement was just talk; or…
  2. The Tory war with Alberta’s public employees is still on, at least as far as teachers are concerned

Neither of those conclusions is particularly auspicious for the future of the Progressive Conservative Government in its present straits.

Premier Hancock knows what he needs to do…

+ + +

Did Alberta Health Services really send that Tweet? 

On the very day it announced to a skeptical pubic that 2013 would be an, er, costly year for Alberta Health Services because of huge buyouts paid to a passel of executives pushed out the door, did someone at AHS really send out a Tweet saying: “Know when to quit. If you are truly miserable because of a stressful job, it may be time to think about changing jobs. #stress”

D’ya think? Especially if there’s $1.7 million on the table for you, as there was for one senior executive who walked or was pushed in 2013. A total of $2.4 million was also paid to five VPs who got the bum’s rush but had contracts that stipulated they had to be paid 12 months or more of their base salary at the time of their dismissal.

Angry taxpayers are sure to notice, and not just the Tweet.

It would appear, though, that the inspirational message was the real McCoy. A screenshot of the Tweet appears below – surely it will disappear some time today. Credit where credit is due, this was spotted by my sharp-eyed fellow blogger, Dave Cournoyer, author of the excellent Daveberta.ca blog.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca. Happy Independence Day to our American friends and readers.

7 Comments to: A question for Premier Dave Hancock: Who will rid Alberta’s Tories of their turbulent Education Minister?

  1. Sam Gunsch

    July 4th, 2014

    re: The Tory war with Alberta’s public employees is still on, at least as far as teachers are concerned

    The PC’s are permitting this, IMO, to outflank the WRP.
    Under my theory, Johnson is not a loose cannon.
    He knows he’s got permission to do this to pander to anti-union voters, mostly rural, and thus, mostly the folks who went WRP last election.

    It’s good cop positioning for Prentice, bad cop positioning (Johnson), that is intended to play to the anti-union slice of AB voters that currently vote WRP.

    If the PCAA executive aren’t in on this, then it is probably just the gut-level pandering instincts of Johnson at work, and IMO, re PCAA interests, his choice is sound.

    WRP’s appeal to anti-union, anti-government, anti-public good, is the effective threat.

    Not the loss of progressive union votes to Lib’s or NDP.

    Sam Gunsch

    Reply
  2. Sunshine

    July 4th, 2014

    Dave thanks for another great article. Mr. Prentice is a likable and smart man. But at the end of the day, he will take marching orders from the back room machinery. The Tories are manufacturing another crisis so when Prentice wins, he can be the big savior. The Education minister is a willing team player, for which he should be actually commended, as his acting is quite superb and willing to be bad cop so Tory power can be reaffirmed for another 4 years once Prentice is lobbed a huge soft puffball moving slower than molasses on a cold day, a puffball so big and soft that even the most lame politician can hit it out of the park and look like some sort of political hero. This education dog and pony show is a manufactured crisis to win labour peace before the election and to make Prentice look like a hero. This is a recurring cycle every 4 years. Once Prentice gets a new cabinet..then his chosen education minister becomes the new education hero. At the end of the day, this little dirty game is necessary for the Tories to win on their own terms every time. They do it with healthcare, union govt workers and with any body else they can use to manufacture a crisis to resolidify their electoral victory. Its the backroom machinery, not even the individual ministers. They are constantly thinking ahead to start a fire, fix it and make the new guy the hero. But little actually ever changes, as long as yahoo Albertans have been fooled, then it is mission accomplished. Prentice will bring no meaning lasting change of any kind…he will be no different than any of the lackluster predecessors. Yes its lipstick on a pig, guaranteed 100%. The question is how can Albertans break free of this short attention span cycle. Would drinking less and watching less sports help? The toothless so called independent officers are all mere actors playing a part in this very necessary skit designed to mold and shape public opinion of a very distractable, ADD and mentally weak public that never cares to change its voting pattern.

    Reply
    • Sam Gunsch

      July 5th, 2014

      re: The Education minister is a willing team player, for which he should be actually commended, as his acting is quite superb and willing to be bad cop so Tory power can be reaffirmed for another 4 years…

      Climenhaga is not sufficiently cynical about PCAA political machinations.
      Decent human beings tend to get suckered that way.

      Seems to me that is the implication of both our comments.

      Reply
  3. Pogo

    July 4th, 2014

    My proctologist told me that the real cause behind all the conservative mud wresting is… You guessed it, not enough fibre.
    This particular sock puppet, belonging as he does, to 73 rich farmers, realizes that his options for re-election abide in the cow pie of rural Alberta real politic. See, most people aren’t aware of the political power base that exists “out there”. Politicians from rural constituencies are all retail.
    Take our poster boy here, for example. He’s positioning himself with a punch the lefties scam. If the PCs lose, he might still have a chance to be re-elected, because his constituents just want a real manly punk. Afterwards if he wants another cabinet shot… take a small pause for appearance sake and cross the floor. If they win narrow, he can lead the charge to right, or by gum, he’ll cross the floor and bring down the despots of socialism and hippy love! If they win majority, and he’s elected… meet the new minister of agriculture.
    There is only one way out of this mess for us. Strategic voting that leads to a coalition. The only way to achieve that is by fielding candidates that don’t suck pond scum and by getting some left and centre statisticians who can do a decent job of picking the centre left contenders in each contest! Then by the grace of God is Dead, somehow everyone finds out about it and votes!
    If you want to see where the erosion of our most precious value “the common good” leads, well, just sit on your fat asses and let these kind of schmucks have at it!

    Reply
    • Sam Gunsch

      July 5th, 2014

      re: He’s positioning himself with a punch the lefties scam.

      Punch the lefties… agreed.

      Law and order crowd is significant in rural AB. And this minister would know that.

      Your comment reminds me that what’s in play is a political base with motivations described by George Lakoff’s strict father political model.

      Discipline, punishment.

      My guess, there are lots of parents in rural AB, who think about politics in ways that are founded on Lakoff’s strict father model, and are parents that have been frustrated and angry that in their view, the *system* including and especially the union’s role, provides too much protection to those teachers, who in their opinion, are lazy or permissive or just bad teachers, that ought to be fired.

      My hunch, it’s a bigger river of political culture than conventional wisdom would have it, that has fed the conservative, authoritarian backlash, that has demonized unions, among other agendas, that’s been going on since the hippy’s grew long hair.

      A sampling of links:

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strict_father_model
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moral_Politics_%28book%29
      http://georgelakoff.com/2011/02/19/what-conservatives-really-want/

      Sam Gunsch

      Reply
  4. John Cameron

    July 4th, 2014

    I grow very weary of the PC’s (and truth be told with politicians of whatever breed or flavour). To quote Oliver Cromwell “You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately… Depart, I say; and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!”

    Reply
  5. jerrymacgp

    July 5th, 2014

    The Alberta Teachers’ Association is both a professional regulator, which certifies teachers and conducts professional conduct proceedings; and a labour union & bargaining agent, which negotiates wages, benefits and working conditions on behalf of teachers and represents teachers in collective agreement enforcement processes (i.e. grievance procedures). These two functions are fundamentally incompatible and put the organization in an irreconcilable conflict of interest.

    That these functions are incompatible was made very clear in the health care sector back in the 1970s in a case out of Saskatchewan before the Supreme Court of Canada (Service Employees’ International Union, Local No. 333 v. Nipawin District Staff Nurses Association et al., [1975] 1 S.C.R. 382); one of the outcomes of that case here in Alberta was the creation in 1977 of United Nurses of Alberta (UNA), which was spun off of the Provincial Staff Nurse Committee of what was then the Alberta Association of Registered Nurses (AARN), which is now known as the College and Association of Registered Nurses of Alberta (CARNA).

    More recently, the Health Professions Act, which now governs virtually all regulated health professions, including physicians and all three groups of nurses, explicitly bars Colleges of each profession from being involved in negotiations compensation, whether wages and salaries for those who are employees, or fee schedules for those who are self-employed. As a result, in the health care sector, there is a sharp line dividing professional regulatory functions from labour relations functions. I see no reason in principle why this should not also apply to the education sector.

    Nevertheless, I find Minister Johnson’s approach bull-headed and heavy-handed. I see no reason why he could not have just had his department develop draft legislation governing the teaching profession analogous to the Health Professions Act, and circulated it for stakeholder input before introducing it in the legislature in the normal course of government business. Key components of such a new regulatory regime for teachers could include transparency and public accountability measures such as public representation on the governing board and on conduct hearing tribunals, as well as mandatory employer reporting (to the professional regulator) of teacher terminations for cause or resignations in the face of employer disciplinary action.

    The question of whether school principals and vice-principals remain in the bargaining unit or are declared out of scope (i.e. management) could be left up to the jurisdiction of the Labour Relations Board to decide based on whether principals and vice-principals routinely carry out management functions, such as hiring and firing; in any case, they should still be required to hold teaching certificates or licenses or whatever the new practice permits are to be called.

    This new regime could be introduced in a respectful, considerate, collaborative manner, with the public interest at the forefront; there is no need for this confrontational attack on the integrity of the vast majority of Alberta’s dedicated teachers.

    Reply

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