Terry Price, President of Public Interest Alberta
Buzz Hargrove, former leader of the Canadian Auto Workers, had a constant reminder for groups facing difficult situations: “Never forget that fighting back makes a difference.”
It is important to remember his words in Alberta today, as we face a UCP government that, despite the enormous and grave range of the province’s problems, continues to make matters worse in almost every way.
The most stunning recent illustration of their disastrous approach is the Kenney government’s announcement that they are considering ordering nurses to work overtime and cancel their vacations in order to deal with “staffing shortages” of the growing fourth wave of COVID 19. These are the same nurses who were exhausted and overwhelmed by their unceasing efforts on behalf of all of us throughout the pandemic, who were then gratuitously insulted by a demand to cut their wages by 3%, and who along with almost the entire medical and health community have warned that the government’s move to prematurely end all COVID restrictions would lead to chaos. And Kenney’s solution is forced overtime and cancelled vacations.
It’s tempting to describe the situation as a farce, but of course, it is much worse – it is a tragedy, and what’s more, it was both predictable and probably inevitable, given Kenney’s and the UCP’s core values and ideology.
This UCP government’s extremely ideological and arrogant path was evident even before they took office in the 2019 election, and was quickly confirmed in their regressive and far-reaching legislation that not only attempted to undo the NDP’s often-modest progressive changes, but clearly moved to implement a discredited market-fundamentalist, privatizing agenda for health care, education and other public services, while attacking organized labour and perceived progressive civil society groups as well.
The Kenney government looked almost unstoppable at the outset – and then “events” intervened.
The pandemic combined with the province’s already-existing economic problems quickly exposed the wrong-headedness of the UCP approach. Most important, It became increasingly clear that Kenney’s failures were not merely the missteps of an inept government, but rather were the direct results of his ideological commitment to policies of retrenchment, privatization and cuts to public services – when exactly the opposite approach was not only required, but was being implemented almost everywhere else.
The growing public understanding of the misguided approach and counterproductive results of UCP policies has led to a dramatic decline in support for both Kenney’s leadership and the UCP party, and to a fragmentation within the UCP (it is fascinating to note that seventeen of Kenney’s MLAs signed a public letter criticizing him for going too far with his COVID restrictions.)
But another crucial development has occurred at the same time, one with extremely important implications: People are increasingly fighting back, and the once-intractable UCP government is backing down.
The reversals which would have been unthinkable only a year ago have become routine:
Kenney’s turnaround on punishing his COVID-travelling colleagues, his eventual apology for his now-infamous “Sky Palace dinner,” the dramatic change on coal-mining, his decision to finally implement more stringent Stage-Three restrictions for managing the pandemic.
And of course, his recent about-face after declaring a premature end to COVID “restrictions” (‘The Best Summer Ever,) amounted to a public humiliation and an admission that all of those who warned against Kenney’s reckless approach were correct all along.
But here is the crucial point that must not be missed. None of these important retreats by Kenney and the UCP just “happened” – in every case, they came as a result of people fighting back.
Progressive individuals and organizations have increasingly been mobilizing and taking action, and not only on social media. The recent public rallies to support nurses were impressive, and the public protests and widespread organized pressure against the premature ending of COVID obviously played the key role in Kenney’s humiliating retreat on this vital issue.
Citizens will eventually have an opportunity to pass judgement on the Kenney government in the election due in 2023, but in the meantime, the problems are growing and there is much to be done.
While the provincial election is years away, progressives have opportunities to express concerns through two very significant events in the interim – a federal election and municipal/school board elections.
The pandemic and resulting economic reverberations have highlighted the impacts of the growing inequalities within our societies. We must continue to exert pressure through rallies, campaigns and all other available tools, including our votes, to ensure that universally accessible, affordable and high quality child care, national pharmacare, and quality seniors’ care are available to all Albertans, and that all health care services are readily available as a public service. Additionally, the fight must continue to ensure that all workers have access to paid sick leave and are paid a wage that allows them to live with dignity.
Our individual and collective efforts are demonstrably making a difference – and the lesson is that we need to increase them.
Fighting back does make a difference, and fighting back in smart, sustained, and collaborative ways makes a big difference. Let’s redouble our efforts as progressive individuals and organizations to work together and to find even more effective ways to fight back in the coming months.