I suppose as good place as any to get back in to the swim of blogging is Friday’s release by Danielle Smith’s United Conservative Party Government of the three-year-old report on the supposed impact of the $15 minimum wage brought in by Rachel Notley’s NDP Government in 2018.
The previous UCP government led by the hapless Jason Kenney, who now seems to have disappeared from the known political universe, got a look at the thing when its authors delivered it back in February 2020, then sat on it until Mr. Kenney was turfed from the premier’s office by the Take Back Alberta rebellion last year.
The government would likely still be sitting on it if Mr. Kenney had somehow managed to hang onto his job after his poor showing in the UCP’s 2022 leadership review vote.
By March 2020, as readers will doubtless recall, the COVID-19 pandemic was starting to occupy the attention of governments throughout the world to the exclusion of almost everything else.
By the time the Kenney Government got back to thinking about the report – we don’t actually know if it ever received much attention thereafter – it would have been far too late for a premier already widely disliked by almost all groups of voters to introduce a document bound to be seen as a call to cut wages for a subset of working class jobs held by people hit hard by the pandemic.
The report contains no surprises. It was a typical Kenney Government production, shades of the “Blue Ribbon Panel” that called for cuts to nurses’ pay. The minimum wage “expert panel” was obviously handpicked to be likely to come up with a report that called for policy Mr. Kenney had already decided to implement.
Even the panel’s conclusion the minimum wage increase led to the loss of jobs among the youngest cohort of workers was predicted by economists who supported the increase as beneficial overall – although the report’s claim the number was as high as 26,000 can certainly be disputed.
Consider the panel’s makeup. First, there were two economists known to have supported a position similar to the government’s on the impact of minimum wage increases who could be reasonably expected not to change their views. (Similarly qualified economists who would have made recommendations in favour of a higher minimum wage could have been as easily found – there are lots of viewpoints among economists on this particular question.)
Next, there were two representatives of two business lobby groups, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business and Restaurants Canada, which can fairly be described the voice of Canada’s fast-food industry.
Finally there were a couple of friendly local business types and three representatives of restaurant servers, presumably chosen to lend a little working class verisimilitude to the exercise. You can count on it that none of them were barista-union organizers!
The only mild surprise from the perspective of political strategy is that the government of the leader who replaced Mr. Kenney – Ms. Smith, that is – decided to release it now in the lead-up to another provincial election.
But since the chair of the panel, University of Alberta associate economics professor Joseph Marchand, had been making a fuss about the fact the paper hadn’t been released, they may have concluded the potential for embarrassment from that was greater than anything the rather underwhelming paper might stir up.
Anyway, the UCP released it on a Friday that happened to be St. Patrick’s Day, when there may have been an assumption in the boozy backrooms of the party’s strategic brain trust – Dan Williams, c’mon down! – that no one would be paying attention.
Obviously, opponents of the UCP were going to assail the panel’s conclusions – the Opposition NDP certainly did, calling it “a report from their hand-picked panel that recommends wage cuts in Alberta at a time when inflation has reached a 40-year-high and employers are struggling with a labour shortage.”
In fairness, the recommendations were made before inflation took off and the labor shortage was fully apparent.
“If you work a full-time job, you should be able to pay for the basic necessities of life like groceries, rent and utilities, and be able to start putting some money aside for the future,” NDP Leader Rachel Notley said in a statement. “Our Alberta NDP government was proud to make sure more than 150,000 Albertans working in the lowest-wage jobs received a raise in difficult times. Since then, several provinces have followed our lead and raised their minimum wage to $15 or higher.”
“Danielle Smith will use this report to cut the pay of hundreds of thousands of Albertans,” Ms. Notley also argued.
Quite possibly, but not just yet. In the 146-word statement accompanying the release of the report and obviously intended to be quickly forgotten, Jobs, Economy and Northern Development Minister Brian Jean disavowed the whole thing.
“Alberta’s government has no plans to change the current minimum wage structure or introduce a separate liquor server minimum wage,” he stated.
“My biggest takeaway from the panel report is that making large, unexpected changes to minimum wages can actually hurt employment,” he added, never mind that the increase wasn’t particularly large, certainly wasn’t unexpected and probably didn’t hurt employment over all. “These changes require significant consultation and deliberation” – code for delay, of course.
As NDP Labour Critic Cristina Gray pointed out, the panel “included lobby groups that have fought against every minimum wage increase proposed in the last 50 years.”
Mr. Jean concluded: “I encourage all those interested to read the report.” He was, presumably, confident almost no one will.
Nothing to see here folks. Move along please.
NOTE: It was frustrating to see the United Conservative Party mess-ups in the past few days while trying to travel by air in Alberta (a gong show worthy of its own commentary), carrying a computer that was in an uncooperative mood, and contracting an airplane cold – fortunately so far causing no second bar on my COVID tests to show up. Where to start? It was either this or the Tylenot scandal. DJC