AHEAD OF THE HEARD — There are times with the trials and tribulations of government decisions when one wonders – what were they thinking – or in the case of the farmworkers’ rights issue what were they not thinking. The latter seems appropriate being the freshly minted new NDP government back in June of 2015 had no political connections to a huge sector of the economy – agriculture and agribusiness. So, when they decided to act on one of their promises, farmworker rights, they did not know who to talk to in the industry. There was a common-sense approach, that being talk to the ag producer commodity groups. The point being, producer groups understood the political reality of the new NDP regime and were willing and able to sit down with the government to negotiate the implementation of those rights.
The fact is most of the larger producer commodity groups were quite aware that the long simmering issue had to be dealt with sooner or later, being Alberta was the only province left without farmworker rights. Even the former PC government was being prodded to take some minimal steps towards rights for farmworkers. I would even suggest that there were those in the ag political establishment that welcomed this new opportunity to get the matter finally resolved. The underlying political and working reality was that most commercial ag operations already had to participate in extensive liability insurance coverage for their employees upon the insistence of their bankers and lending agencies.
The point remains that producer groups were willing to enter into a negotiating process that would address an issue that they were familiar with and understood its political reality. But alas, what would have been a common-sense approach was not to be. Instead the new government followed the same disastrous consultation process that the previous PC government had carried out with the property rights issue. They even hired the same consulting company to organize the meeting format and agenda. The government managed to take a failed consultation process and make it worse – what were they thinking. To be fair, many in the agriculture and rural community did take advantage of this government PR disaster and proceeded to turn it into a circus of clashing ideologies and political mischief. Not much of the demonstrations had anything to do with the farmworkers’ rights issue, which probably affected very few of the protestors.
But just think of all the aggravation, acrimony, protesting and political retributions that could have been avoided had the minister just called in the producer groups and gave them the task to bring farmworker rights into the 21st century. They were willing and able to carry out that task for the minister, they would have done most of the work and saved the government the $500,000 cost of their subsequent rigged consultation process they foisted on the industry. I would boldly suggest the outcome would not have been all that different from the present contrived process. Except that you would not have seen months of anti-government demonstrations and an embittered relationship between the government and the second largest economic sector in Alberta. Perhaps if the government had taken the more conciliatory and cooperative approach they might even have created a better political perception for themselves in the rural community.
But alas that was not to be as the NDP political brain trust in the Premier’s office had one thing in mind – they wanted revenge for the humiliation they endured during the protests in the fall of 2015. The first thing they did was to take away the issue from the agriculture and labour departments and would manage it directly from the Premier’s office. The issue would now be controlled mostly by folks hired by the Premier’s chief of staff. Many of them had a few things in common – they were mostly B.C. NDP ideologues and operatives, they were from urban backgrounds and they knew nothing about agriculture in Alberta. What better people to have manage and liaise with Alberta farmers and ranchers on such a sensitive political issue – it boggles the mind.
The first move they made was to have a freshly hired NDP political operative from B.C. communicate informally with some of the major commodity groups, commissions and boards. Her qualifications included being an assistant to the Mayor of Vancouver and being fervently against pipelines. Seemingly she was the ideal person to connect with the Alberta agricultural sector. I wish I was making this up but I am not – still more political machinations next time.