If you feel the temperature going up it’s not just on the thermometer outside.
On the subject of wage rollbacks for provincial public sector workers, Premier Jim Prentice uncorks his most forceful lingo yet.
Prentice is asked point blank if his government will discuss wage rollbacks with workers.
Looks like they’re already on that road.
Let’s just give the premier the pulpit this day. He’s got a lot on his mind.
“We have to have that discussion with the unions. It has to include everything. It has to include the fact we cannot deliver $46 billion of services with $39 billion of revenue. That’s the essence of the discussion,” says Prentice, sounding a no-nonsense tone.
“We’ve started that process. There are legal requirements in terms of how you do this and the nature of the discussion.
“Contracts have been signed. But we have to sit down. We have to have a discussion about the fiscal circumstances we’re in. Everyone in the private sector is experiencing this.
“These are people who are partners in the delivery of public services. It is in their interest to have this discussion in a constructive way to deal with reality.
“The reality is there’s only $39 billion of money and it’s costing us $46 billion for services. Something’s got to give.”
To get support for whatever might be done on higher taxes, Prentice figures he has to show he’s reducing what the provincial government gobbles up and a lot goes to paycheques.
“You cannot ask Albertans to tighten their belts and pay more unless they see a reduction in the size and the cost of government.
“A lot of it comes down to wages because wages are 60% to 70% of the overall budget.
“We can get more efficient in the delivery of services in lots of ways and we need to do that. But it comes down to the fact public sector wage settlements have outpaced everyone else in Canada.”
Prentice says public sector wages over the next three years add $2.6 billion to the province’s bottom line.
On current contract talks Prentice’s message is simple.
“People are going to have to change their expectations. Across the public sector there have to be reduced expectations of what we can afford.”
The premier also says those in the civil service will have to find ways to maintain quality while cutting costs, just like in the real world.
“And the answer can’t be: ‘Sorry, we can’t do this.’ ”
Prentice also admits there’s been “a lack of discipline” over the level of public-sector wage hikes in the past.
“Perhaps it’s a consequence of having too much money.
“We became undisciplined about what we were giving up in terms of management rights, in terms of wage concessions and it’s been evident to every other government in Canada.
“It’s a problem and we’ve been merrily steaming ahead.”
What about Prentice and his people?
The premier sounds like he’s up for a pay cut.
“It’s unrealistic for me to ask for concessions if the premier and the people who work with the premier aren’t prepared to do the same thing. So I get that.”
So you might get a pay cut?
“There you go,” he replies.
With all this talk the mind goes back a generation to Ralph and the fierce placard-waving, fist-pounding protests over his cuts.
That’s when Ralph uttered words he often repeated.
“I ain’t gonna blink.”
What if people take to the streets?
Prentice says once he commits to his five-year plan this spring he’s sticking to his guns.
“We will press on and do the right thing. Once we put a fiscal plan in place that’s the fiscal plan. We won’t blink. That’s where we’re going.
“Where we’ll be at the end of five years is in a much different place than we are today.”
He says those who think they can cut $7 billion out of the province’s budget this coming year to avoid any possible tax hikes “don’t appreciate the severity of the problem.”
And Prentice says doing nothing means burning through the province’s back-up bucks and the entire Heritage Fund in three years.
He’s not going there.
So who is responsible for this sticky situation in the public treasury?
“We all are as Albertans, aren’t we?” says Prentice.
He says we had the most expensive public services while keeping the lowest taxes by far.
“We maintained the magic trick by pouring in oil revenues. In the last year we budgeted $9 billion in oil revenue and it’s gone.
“Maybe Alberta had too much money at points in time. That world is behind us.”
How far behind us is what we shall see.