Martha and her Monthly

Feminist analysis of Alberta politics.

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Sunday, January 08, 2006

Martha's Monthly - January 2006

A Little Red Wagon and some Stone Soup

Like you, Martha spent some of the last month hosting and attending holiday events. It meant she also spent a lot of time in the local grocery store buying supplies. Every time she entered the store, Martha’s blood pressure would rise, her breathing would get shallow, and her palms would sweat. Martha has nothing against grocers or their stores. What caused her panicky, angry state was a small sticker on the door of the store that has a little red wagon on it. The sticker is for Alberta’s Promise. (If you haven’t seen the sticker then check out the website: )

According to the website, Alberta’s Promise is “a movement to inspire communities, businesses, service clubs, foundations and agencies to work together to direct more resources to benefit our children and youth.” The motivational quotation from Colin Powell (“every child should have a little red wagon with which to pull around the heavy load of life and all his dreams”) begs for a violin solo. That little red wagon makes Martha see red! It is not so much that the idea of motivating community “partners” to invest in children is a bad idea. It is just that the little red wagon highlights how very LITTLE the Alberta government has invested (in the monetary sense of that word) in ensuring that Alberta is the best place in the world for children to grow up.

What Alberta has done, in recent years, is contract out Child Welfare services and pay bonuses to Deputy Ministers and Managers for keeping costs down in the Children’s Services department. That’s right, achievement bonuses of around $700,000 are paid out each year to Children’s Services managers who have managed to pay less for more. That would be paying less to foster families, social workers, and child welfare investigators while getting more and more children into care.

The Annual Report of Children’s Services paints a bleak picture: “In 2004-05, on average, the ministry provided services to 13,800 children each month. Approximately, 8,400 of these children were in the temporary or permanent care of the Director.” During that same year 22 children were seriously injured or killed while in care. (see Children in Care report and Annual Report )

But luckily, the hard work of managers and CEOs meant that the government came in 0.9% under budget (that is about $6.7 million!). And as a result of coming under budget, $640,000 was doled out to a handful of managers. The performance bonuses are based on coming under budget, meeting performance goals (set by the managers themselves), and having positive client surveys (administered and collected by the managers themselves).

Now, Martha might be a little small-town in her understanding of these things but her father was a farmer and Martha remembers him saying that if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’ll make a good duck soup. Martha thinks that someone in Alberta is dining on duck soup and the rest of us are being fed stone soup. (In case you don’t read children’s stories as often as Martha, Stone Soup is a classic tale of a stranger who comes to a poor town and convinces the townspeople he will make them stone soup from his stone but it needs a few little ingredients from them like a carrot, an onion, a ham bone, etc. which the townspeople all provide. He is a hero while all the people do the work and provide the food!)

While the Alberta government has, by its own accounts, more money than it knows what to do with, Alberta Children’s Services is keeping costs low while they provide services to more than 13,000 children in need. And who reaps the benefits of cutting costs? Not the thousands of children waiting for a permanent home. Not the 22 children who spent the night in hospital or died as a result of their “care” and not the thousands of foster families who survive on paltry amounts (about $300 per child per month if you are related, more if you are unrelated).

The people who have benefited from achievement bonuses are those deputy ministers and managers who have overseen the goal setting and performance measures and then provided client surveys that “confirm” how satisfied people are with their service. If this all seems a little, well, potentially problematic to you then you would not be alone. The Alberta Liberals and the Alberta New Democrats have both raised concerns in the Legislature. As Dr. Raj Pannu, former leader of the Alberta New Democrats stated in 1999 during debate of the $27.4 million achievement bonuses for that year: “…the question was raised about the potential conflict of interest the system will engender when public servants address the issue of, on the one hand, making sure that the department lives within the budget…and on the other hand then delivering services of high quality to citizens who need them without having to disqualify a certain number in order to meet the objectives of keeping expenditures under budget or within budget. So there is a conflict of interest there.”

If you think money budgeted to Children’s Services should be spent on children and not on achievement bonuses for senior managers then please forward the following letter to Premier Klein. And pass this email on to your friends so they can send the letter as well. Send your letter to:,,,, (If you copy and paste these all in a row on your To: box you will find it saves time!)

January 8, 2006

Premier Klein

Alberta Legislature

Dear Premier Klein:

A very Happy New Year to you and all Albertans. I write you today with a concern over the children of Alberta and especially those most vulnerable: the more than 13,000 children in care of Child Welfare. I am particularly perplexed at the recent 2004-2005 Annual Report from Children’s Services, which highlights the millions of dollars saved in the department. I, and my fellow Marthas of Martha’s Monthly, do not consider this a great thing. I find it a shame that we would celebrate saving money while thousands of children need permanent homes and more than 20 were seriously injured or killed in care.

I believe that we need to heavily invest in providing excellent care for these vulnerable children by improving foster family pay, increasing allowances for recreation, clothing, etc., and seriously reducing the caseloads of frontline social workers so that they can help build a stable support network for these children.

I also find it very problematic that managers are personally rewarded with achievement bonuses based on the department’s cost cutting. I have some deep ethical concerns about this system of performance evaluation and bonuses to senior civil servants. I call on you to review this policy, particularly as it pertains to Children’s Services, and ensure that independent reviewers do evaluations. I further call on you to remove the goal of budget cutting for these performance bonuses so that all the money allocated to Children’s Services is spent on providing services to vulnerable Albertan children.


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Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Martha's Monthly - December 2005

Martha makes a Christmas list and checks it twice

If you are anything like Martha you have a Christmas gift list complete with a little budget to ensure you don’t go mad in the malls. Most of us have at least a fair idea of what we will spend on our friends and family. Martha has a group of friends who get together for dinner to celebrate Christmas and exchange $5 gifts. They can be used, traded, made, re-gifted, and even new. But they must not exceed the $5 budget limit. It makes it fun and keeps it all fair.

Governments make budgets for much the same reasons: to keep it fun and fair. Budgets forecast expenditures and revenues so that governments can plan their programs. In Alberta, the government tabled its 2005 budget on April 13, 2005. It called for $25 Billion in spending. That is like the little budget you make for your Christmas list (just with a few extra zeroes at the end). Now imagine that you took your little budget to the mall and while there you decided to throw out the budget and start spending like Santa.

Well that is what has happened during the 11 day Fall sitting of the Legislature: unbudgeted spending that has thrown caution (and the budget) to the wind.

Martha can’t remember this kind of wild abandon since the time in 1974 when she attended her first Yuckaflux party. Neither episode is all that dignified. Premier Klein in Fall 2005 looks like Santa on speed. Santa Klein and his Elves passed legislation authorizing unbudgeted spending in the order of $1.8 Billion dollars. (The correct name for these add-ons to the budget is Supplementary Estimates.) The $1.8 Billion is a fraction of the spending that will occur, though, as the surplus is over $7 Billion dollars this year.

The government devoted just three days of debate to the Supplementary Estimates, which involve 14 different departments and almost $1.8 billion. With a total of two hours set aside each day, it means $300 million was discussed every hour, or $5 million every minute. (Edmonton Journal November 20, 2005)

Here is what MLA Laurie Blakeman, Liberal Opposition House Leader, had to say about the scrutiny allowed in a few short hours of Supplementary Estimates debate:

“We were trying to debate one department every 17 minutes…. I mean, it is reaching the point of meaningless. Is this a deliberate move? Is the effect of this bill a deliberate move on behalf of government to make this meaningless and to make it – what? – laughable, make it trivial, make it unimportant, to support that claim that it’s none of our business how the government decides to spend that money?” (November 30, 2005 Debate 8:00pm)

While Martha gets a little peeved when she hears about huge expenditures rushed through debates she gets even more irate when she sees the total lack of work being done in the Legislature: committees that rarely meet and are made up of only government members, a session that lasts just 11 days, and a Premier that misses most of that. Martha can’t imagine being paid for a year of work and showing up for just 53 days of that year. (The legislature had sat for 42 days earlier in the year) But that is the total number of days that the Legislature sat this year. Granted, much of the work of Legislature takes place out of the debates during committee meetings. But in Alberta, our main committees are one-party ones. Alberta is the only province that has government committees. (Martha wishes to add, for the gentle reader, that committee membership brings with it a substantial increase in pay!) There are only 6 committees that Opposition members are allowed to sit on. A third of these committees never met.

So, in Alberta, our legislators have the dubious title of being the fastest spenders of money who sit for the fewest days per year. And almost none of the spending is scrutinized.

The Public Accounts Committee, which is charged with scrutinizing the Department budgets each year, only had enough meetings to get through 1/3 of the departments. Most departments’ spending never got one minute of scrutiny by the Opposition, the media, and Albertans. (And if anyone wonders what a Public Accounts Committee should do just think AdScam and Gomery)

Martha notes, however, that the uproar in Alberta has been a little, shall we say, under whelming. Have Albertans just become fatalistic about their government? Martha thinks not. She knows many hard working women who, when she tells them that Premier Klein attended 2 days of the last sitting, are shocked. They had no idea. Martha thinks that the muted response to the anti-democratic approach to governing in Alberta is born of lack of awareness of the problem. Since the legislature sits so rarely, it is hard for the Opposition parties to get out this message.

What should be happening? Well Martha had an idea. How about the government of Alberta starts to democratize a little?

If you think 53 days of work a year and $5 million of spending per minute is ridiculous then send the following letter on to Premier Klein. Albertans deserve a Christmas gift of a more democratic, transparent, and scrutinized government. Copy this letter to,,,,, (HINT: if you copy the whole list of addresses you can paste them to your TO: box in a separate email)

Premier Klein

December 8, 2005

Dear Mr. Klein:

Since the Marthas of Marthas Monthly last wrote to you, your government has had a full sitting of the Legislature. This 11-day session was so short that members were asked to debate Supplementary Estimates at breakneck speed.

I do not believe that the scrutiny of government expenditure should be something that is treated so lightly by your government. I was stunned to hear that spending nearly two Billion dollars took only a matter of hours. I believe that Albertans like me deserve to hear more debate about these expenditures and have a chance to contribute to the discussion through our MLA.

I call on you to make changes to your government’s House schedule so that you meet more days. I call on all MLAs to make these sessions their priority. I call on you for the reinstitution of all-party committees. Let committees meet outside of legislative sitting times and make them more effective by budgeting for each of them a researcher. See that the Public Accounts Committee meets throughout the year in order to get through all government departments. And please, Mr. Klein, stop spending so much money with so little planning. The unbudgeted surpluses need to be planned for and invested in quality programs for Albertans, not $400 cheques.

I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

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Your complete Address

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Martha's Monthly November 2005

Cattle Drives and First Contract Legislation

A few weeks ago Martha was visiting some family in Gladrock Valley in Southern Alberta. Now Gladrock is the kind of place where no one locks the door and everyone has a corn roast together on Saturday nights in August. So when one of the neighbours phoned up for some help doing a cattle drive on Sunday afternoon, Martha and Henry didn’t have to think twice. After all, it’s just being neighbourly.

One hour later Martha stood in the middle of a gravel road facing a herd of cattle being driven down the road. Her job was to steer them into a small gate and their new pasture. When the rancher was explaining this to her this made a lot of sense. It started to make less sense as she saw the hundred or so cattle coming straight for her. For a few seconds it looked like there could be trouble. Then one of the cows, a large female, stopped dead in her tracks. A hundred cattle stopped behind her. She looked at Martha. Martha looked back. It was a showdown. Then the old cow looked at the pasture and just turned into the gate. All the other cows followed her lead. Martha, was, I’m sure you can imagine, grateful and relieved. Sometimes it just takes one leader to avert a disaster.

The whole cattle drive got Martha thinking about the Lakeside strike, which began a few days before. Prior to the strike there was a 9-month long negotiation. The strike lasted three weeks. As of November 4th, the workers voted yes to a contract with the employers. But the questions still exist: What lead to the strike in the first place and how can we avoid another bitter and violent dispute in the future?

For answers, Martha turned to some experts. She called up Dr. Ian MacLachlan of the University of Lethbridge. He wrote the book Kill and Chill: Restructuring Canada’s beef commodity chain in 2001. Dr. MacLachlan told Martha about the high turnover of workers in the meat packing industry and the difficult physical labour that the workers endure. He and Martha spoke about a photo of the strike that had really touched Martha. It was a veiled woman, a Sudanese woman, wearing a striker’s placard over her veil. Martha could not stop thinking about that woman and how she likely had never worked outside her home before coming to Canada, and now here she was doing such difficult work AND having to make sense of all these negotiations. And Dr. MacLachlan told Martha that many of the woman who work in packing plants work in the worst section: entrails. Women tend to have to do the worst jobs and for it they receive the least pay. Martha felt a strong sisterhood with that woman. This issue was now Martha’s issue.

Martha then turned to Ian McKenna, a University of Lethbridge Management professor who specializes in labour relations and law. Not surprisingly, Professor McKenna had some clear solutions to such labour strife in Alberta. He told Martha that this province lacks adequate labour laws.

McKenna pointed out to Martha that we are one of the few provinces without something called first contract binding arbitration. Essentially, this means when an employer and its newly certified union fail to negotiate a collective agreement, an arbitrator may be appointed by the neutral Labour Relations Board to impose a binding first collective agreement on both parties.

At first blush, it may seem like government dictatorship but Martha thought how such legislation avoids nasty strikes and lockouts and (strongly) encourages the employer to come to the negotiating table. (Because they know that if they don’t a binding agreement will be handed to them) Employers couldn’t stonewall while they wait for a union to fold and employers could also benefit from some labour stability, as strikes are illegal during the life of a collective agreement.

It is time for first contract binding arbitration in Alberta. The Liberal opposition critic Dan Backs has written a letter to Premier Klein offering the Liberals’ support for the Premier to use the Official Opposition’s bill on first contract binding arbitration (see the Liberal website for the story and the letter) That is a great offer.

Alberta’s NDP have stated they will call for an emergency debate on this issue when the Alberta legislature is (finally!) recalled from their summer break on November 15. (see NDP website)

So what is the Conservative Party saying? Well, it depends who you ask. The Premier has claimed to have no power to intervene. (Despite the fact that his government did intervene in the summer to impose a Disputes Inquiry Board hearing.) But Mr. Klein’s Infrastructure Minister Lyle Oberg (who is the MLA for Brooks) has said he thinks the government should look at first contract legislation. (CBC story) And Human Resources Minister Mike Cardinal released a statement saying he thought “it may be time to look at labour relations legislation in Alberta and determine if any changes are needed” (News release) Of course, Minister Cardinal also reiterated the government’s stance that these disputes are “private” and so government should be have a “limited response”.

Martha thinks that it is high time that the government recognizes this issue for what it is: a cattle drive gone bad. We need a leader stop the stampede! Alberta needs to have first contract legislation so that duly formed unions can negotiate contracts with their employers the first time out, without having to strike. This strike didn’t need to happen.

If you agree and never want to see unions have to strike in order to get their employers to negotiate a first contract then please write a letter to Premier Klein asking him to be a leader now by agreeing to the Official Opposition’s bill on First Contract Arbitration. Use our letter below or write your own. Email it to,,,,, (Hint: you can use your cursor to highlight and then copy all these addresses. Then open a new email message and paste them into the To: line. Easy!)

November 8, 2005

Dear Premier Klein:

The past month has been very disturbing to me as I, and my fellow Marthas, watched the Lakeside strike in Brooks unfold. I have been most disturbed to discover that the lack of provincial legislation for first contracts was part of why this dispute took place.

I believe that unions and employers should be allowed to negotiate their contracts and so I believe that your government needs to support the First Contract Arbitration legislation proposed by the Official Opposition. I believe that had Alberta had such legislation a year ago we would not have had a strike at Lakeside at all.

It is incumbent upon your government to show leadership now to prevent any similar labour disputes in the future.

I will be carefully watching when you recall the Legislature on November 15th. Please support first contract legislation so that unions and employers can negotiate in fairness in the future.


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