Kenney tilts blue ribbon panels to achieve desired result

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Need to tie up controversial policies with a nice arms-length bow?  Have you tried the blue-ribbon, expert panel strategy?

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney can offer some handy suggestions on how to get the desired result.  There’s the one-sided panel-membership route.  Or you can tailor the terms of reference to narrow the chance of a surprise.  Or there’s the tie-one-hand-behind-the-back tactic.

The UCP government has three panels underway at the moment looking into minimum wage, safe injection sites and the province’s fiscal situation.

Minimum wage in Alberta rose under the NDP government from $10.20 an hour in 2015 to $15 an hour last September.  The current panel is assessing the effect the $15 wage is having on the economy and whether there should be a lower wage for those who serve liquor.

Panel chairman Joseph Marchand, a University of Alberta economist, wrote a paper in 2017 for the C.D. Howe Institute saying the $15 an hour minimum wage would cost 25,000 jobs in the province.

A representative on the panel from Restaurants Canada has already declared the NDP wage hike was too much, too fast and at the wrong time.

The group also includes a representative from the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, the owner of the Running Room sport store chain, the owner of Express Employment, an economics professor from the University of Waterloo, two servers from Blink Restaurant in Calgary and a server from Chop Steakhouse.  The employer of the two servers from Blink is a member of the Restaurants Canada board of directors.

Proponents of leaving the minimum wage untouched say the panel is stacked.  Labour Minister Jason Copping called it a diverse group of people.

Cynics predict the chop is coming for servers’ wages when the panel’s report comes down at the beginning of 2020.  Copping has said the government is planning to keep the general minimum wage at $15.

Practically speaking it would be tough to roll back the wage for most earners but the restaurant lobby has been particularly vocal about narrow margins and closing businesses.

The safe injection site panel has a more diverse makeup, but its terms of reference have a yawning gap.  The panel will look at social and economic impacts of safe drug consumption sites but not the health benefits.

The government is “trying to balance the system,” says Jason Luan, associate minister of mental health and addictions.

The panel, chaired by former Edmonton police chief Rod Knecht, will study crime rates, social order, property values and business impacts of the sites.

Harm reduction, creating new sites and provincial funding aren’t on the table.

Luan contends that there’s plenty of information supporting safe injection sites, but the effect on the community and business has not been considered.

Government opponents say the panel will be used to support the UCP’s ultimate plan to move and reduce the number of safe consumption sites in the province.  There are currently seven sites operating.

This particular panel includes qualified members with experience dealing with addiction and law enforcement.  There is also a mother who lost a 16-year-old son to fentanyl.  But the terms of reference are so restricted one wonders how the expertise of panel members will come into play.

The government-appointed expert panel that is invariably tagged with the “blue ribbon” descriptor is the group of worthies looking into the overall finances of the province.

Their report has already been delivered to government but the public won’t see it until September.

The members of this particular panel, while not likely to produce a report leaning anywhere left of centre, is a qualified group.

The chair is Janice MacKinnon, a former finance minister of an NDP Saskatchewan government, who is known for her fiscal prudence.

Mike Percy, former dean of the Alberta School of Business at U of A, has served as both a Liberal MLA and as chief of staff to Conservative Premier Jim Prentice.

The panel includes former deputy ministers, a former CEO of ATB Financial and an academic from U of C’s School of Public Policy.

This august body is tasked with making an assessment of the state of the province’s finances and finding a roadmap out of debt.  But the group has to do that without suggesting higher taxes.

Essentially the group will consider only half of the province’s balance sheet – the spending side.  Given that blinkered view, even the bluest of blue ribbon panels would be hard pressed to come up with anything but a plan to wield a sharpened budget axe.

So basically the expert panel strategy from the Kenney government appears to be make an election promise, appoint someone to repeat it back to you, either because they’re on your side or because there’s no other conclusion possible, and implement it.

More from Kathy Kerr.     @kathkerr1

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