Right off the hop, the province’s budget boss Robin Campbell doesn’t mince his words.
Government workers should be looking at keeping their jobs and not thinking of more money.
There is $2.6 billion baked into the provincial budget for wage hikes over the next three years.
“If I don’t have to pay that, it helps me tremendously. I hope the unions understand the situation we’re in. To me, job security is more important than getting an increase,” says Campbell, once the president of a United Mine Workers of America local.
“If I was a union guy I would be looking at job security right now.”
“I always had the opinion having a job and a wage that I could count on was a lot better than trying to go after something I didn’t know I could have and possibly lose my job.”
Campbell continues, knowing the unions will push back against what amounts to a 9% cut to government operating spending this coming financial year.
There will be an overall 5% cut to spending and then there’s zero dollars to account for inflation and the growth in population.
That’s the equivalent of a 4% reduction.
With a 9% cut and wages taking the biggest piece of the operating spending pie, there’s a collision course happening.
The budget boss makes it clear he has his marching orders from Premier Jim Prentice.
“What is going to happen in the oil and gas industry in the next little while is going to be really hard on people,” says Campbell.
“And people are going to lose their jobs and there are going to be houses lost. Families are going to be in trouble.
“I spent my entire life in the coal industry. I’ve seen all kinds of mine closures and layoffs. It’s not pretty.
“So I would like to see us come to a resolution that makes the most sense and keeps many people working.
“But I’ll leave that up to the unions to make that decision on behalf of their membership.”
We’ve seen this movie before.
Is Campbell ready for the placards and the protests and the marches?
“We’ve got no money, Rick. We’ve got to stand up to it.”
Campbell, the union man, talks about the unions.
“The only people complaining are the unions. I’ve been all over the province talking to people,” says the finance minister.
“The only people on social media complaining are the unions. They’re the ones on the radio.
“Albertans that are going to lose their jobs in the oil industry, and in the service industry because we’re seeing reductions in capital spending from the oil companies, they’re not going to have a lot of sympathy for these people who are working.”
Once again, Campbell looks back to his days negotiating with coal mining companies.
“When times were tough you had to bear down and you had to do what you could to bargain with the company to keep the doors open.
“Because if the doors are closed, you’ve got nothing.”
Campbell says this past week he sent cabinet ministers the targets on spending.
The overall cut in spending is 5% but some government departments may be under 5% and some may be over 5%.
He expects to get answers from the cabinet ministers in about a couple weeks.
The departments are also looking at any “revenue options.” Yes, more ways to raise money.
Campbell’s people will also go through the 24,000-plus responses to the province’s budget survey and the 1,600-plus pages of comments.
“I can tell you the message is loud and clear. Before the government does anything, get spending under control,” he says.
Speaking of spending, this past week critics poked and prodded Campbell and Prentice about not giving the province’s Child and Youth Advocate the $275,000 he wanted.
Campbell is quick to point out the advocate is still scoring more dough this year than was originally estimated in the budget.
And the advocate gets millions more than in the bigger provinces of B.C. and Ontario.
“I think it’s unfortunate opposition parties would use children to try and make their political message,” says Campbell.
“Albertans are pretty smart and they know we’re not about to balance the budget on the backs of children.”
But the heat will be on Campbell in the days, weeks and months ahead.
And the names are sure to be fly.
“I don’t think there’s a name they can call me I haven’t been called already.”