Labour issues on tap at 2nd United Conservative Party leadership debate

Three candidates for the United Conservative leadership say wholesale sacking of civil servants is not the answer to Alberta’s red ink woes — but they say something has to be done.

Labour relations is on the agenda Thursday night when the candidates arrive in the Alberta capital to hold their second

Former Wildrose leader Brian Jean says Alberta’s public service is over-managed and needs to use attrition and move people around to deliver the best value for the tax dollar.

“I’ve managed enough businesses to recognize that if you go in and say, ‘Tomorrow I’m going to be firing 20 per cent of you,’ everybody is going to be looking for a new job the next day,” said Jean.

“That doesn’t help anybody. We need these people. Our economy is going to grow again.”

Jean is running to cut $2.6 billion from the budget and says reforming spending practices and reducing jobs through attrition can get the job done.

Alberta’s economy is slowly rebounding from years of sluggish oil prices that drained thousands of jobs from the private sector and billions of dollars from the government’s bottom line.

Premier Rachel Notley has refused to balance the books through deep cuts in public services, saying that would make a bad situation worse. The province is running a $10.5 billion deficit this year and will be $43.3 billion in debt by next spring.

‘Reduce the size of the public sector’

Former Progressive Conservative leader Jason Kenney said that years of rising debt payments, already more than $1 billion a year, will force the government’s hand if action isn’t taken now.

“We need to increase economic growth with policies that restore investor confidence in Alberta,” said Kenney. “We’ll have to reduce the size of the public sector to some extent through attrition without affecting front-line services.

“We’re not talking about any kind of shock treatment here, but we will need a period of sustained fiscal restraint.”

Candidate Doug Schweitzer said Alberta’s civil servants are among the highest paid in Canada, and the public service needs to accept pay cuts to avoid job cuts.

Schweitzer suggests a nine per cent cut for politicians and political staff, six per cent for high-end public sector workers and three per cent for the rest.

“I don’t want to be coming in here and having people say, ‘Oh the new government is going to fire people,’ because that’s not our plan,” said Schweitzer.

“We want to make sure we work with people and just get us on a sustainable path.”

Minimum wage

The candidates say they’re also concerned about Alberta’s minimum wage, which is set to rise to $13.60 as of Oct. 1 from $12.20 an hour, then to $15 in the fall of 2018.

All three say business leaders are telling them $15 is not sustainable, and that it will harm the economy because fewer people will be hired.

Jeff Callaway, the fourth candidate, could not be reached for comment.

There are three more debates for the fledgling party, which will pick a leader by preferential ballot on Oct. 28. This Friday is the cut off date to sell memberships.

The candidates say that deadline just means the launch of a new phase of the race — making sure members sign up to vote and persuade those sitting on the fence.

“There are huge amount of undecideds in this new party,” said Schweitzer. “After this week it’s going to be (all about)

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