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Kenney Conservatives create policy panel to push the working poor back to penury

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Alberta Labour Minister Jason Copping, left, and minimum wage "expert panel" chair Joseph Marchand at the government's newser in Calgary. Image: Government of Alberta/Flickr

If pushing the working poor back into penury is your policy objective, the United Conservative Party led by Premier Jason Kenney has found the right collection of ringers to stack its "expert panel" on rolling Alberta's minimum wage back to pre-NDP levels.

Labour Minister Jason Copping introduced the panel in Calgary last Thursday, with lots of the usual folderol about how cutting poor people's wages will "restore jobs and prosperity to our province." The prevailing opinion of the economics profession is that it won't, but just never mind about that.

The two academic economists the UCP found obviously have the right jobs to lend a veneer of respectability to the panel and the ideologically required viewpoint to ensure it reaches the right conclusions.

Anindya Sen of the University of Waterloo attacked the idea of a $15 minimum wage for Ontario in a Financial Post column and a market fundamentalist think tank's publication, the CBC reported in an excellent dive into the panel's makeup. Panel chair Joseph Marchand of the University of Alberta has published a commentary for the same think tank saying much the same thing.

So this is a pretty good indication of how Kenney's advisors go about finding their experts.

Other economists, and not particularly radical ones either, were screaming about this on social media last night. "There's no evidence the minimum wage increase 'killed thousands of jobs' in Alberta in general or among young people in particular," tweeted the University of Calgary's Trevor Tombe, quoting some of Kenney's made-up tweetery. But who needs evidence when you've got an expert panel?

Other panelists include two professional lobbyists for groups that incessantly attack minimum wage increases and working people's rights: Richard Trustcott is B.C. and Alberta vice-president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business; Mark von Schellwitz is Western Canada VP of Restaurants Canada.

Restaurants Canada, as readers of this blog will be aware, was founded in 1944 as the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association to oppose wartime measures by the government of prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King to aid the desperate fight against Nazi Germany. Why? Because rationing and menu price-controls to help beat Hitler were cutting into restaurateurs' profits!

Von Schellwitz, based in Vancouver, is a prolific author of op-eds decrying restaurant industry living wages wherever they are considered. These essays, dutifully reprinted by Postmedia's newspapers, typically argue now is not the time for wages to go up. (Pro tip: For these guys, now is never the time for wages to go up.)

Another favourite argument of groups like Restaurants Canada and the CFIB is that if foreign owned fast-food chains have to pay their employees a fair wage, they'll have to stop serving bad coffee and blotto burgers at 3 a.m., or, God forbid, go out of business.

This never seems to happen, but no one ever asks if things are so bad why businesspeople continue to shell out literally millions of dollars to open Tim Hortons and McDonald's franchises in Alberta.

Other panel members include a couple of business owners who opposed the minimum wage increase by Rachel Notley's NDP, and three restaurant servers. Not to slag waiters, it's an honourable job, but at best they have to worry more about what their anti-union, anti-minimum-wage bosses think than the welfare of working people generally.

At worst, they may not be exactly what they appear to be. For example, thanks to the good reporting of the CBC, we now know that one of the servers, Delphine Borger, is the half-sister of the owner of the restaurant where she works, who in turn sits on the board of Restaurants Canada. This important factoid was not mentioned by the government in its announcement.

It's interesting to note that one of the other servers comes from the same restaurant, and the only women on the panel, the three servers, are on the employee side of the employer-employee relationship. Think about that for a moment.

Appointing lobbyists to write policy and legislation is nothing new in Conservative circles, of course. In Donald Trump's Washington, it's standard operating procedure.

How this often works in Canada was described in the moderate words of the estimable Alberta journalist Mark Lisac, discussing the approach being taken by Ralph Klein's government back in 1993: "The new method for making public policy tries on the surface to put the job into the hands of the general public and in particular into the hands of groups directly affected. It actually keeps a controlling power in the hands of the government, a government which relies on the mass appeal of a popular leader.

"It tends to stifle criticism on grounds that the people have spoken, although some people have a stronger voice than others while some may have no say at all. It tends to devalue debate. It separates political decisions from elections.

"The effect of such ideas has always been the same: to make it easier for part of society to impose its will on another part."

As the former president of a notorious neoliberal Astro-Turf group himself, it shouldn't surprise us Premier Kenney sees strategic potential in this approach. Still, the makeup of this panel suggests his government isn't even trying very hard to pretend any more.

The panel will first meet at the beginning of September. It will doubtless wait until after the federal election on October 21 to deliver its recommendation on how to roll back the minimum wage from the vicinity of a living wage to something much less without provoking window-smashing barista riots on Whyte Avenue and Kensington Road.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca

Image: Government of Alberta/Flickr

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