How the code of silence works

Thank you, readers, for sending in some stories about life in Canada's one-party province after reading my story, The Fear Factor in Alberta Politics. Tories and non-Tories responded. I was surprised to hear from labour Big Guy Gil McGowan, head of the Alberta Federation of Labour. It always seemed to me over the years that unions are among the few organizations that stand can and DO at times stand up to the government – nurses go on strike (or rather used to, years ago), construction unions protest workers' safety, teachers speak out on issues – without fear of job loss, as far as we know.

But it's not that simple, McGowan told me. If you want into the inner circles of power, there's a price to be paid, he says. Here's how it works.

Two years ago, McGowan was elected president of the Alberta Federation of Labour. He had his first meeting with new Employment Minister Thomas Lukaszuk, Edmonton's bright, talented, up and coming Conservative. "He told me good things would happen if I stopped criticizing government in the media," said McGowan.

"I told him I'd be happy to work together and happy to give him credit when it was his due. But I told him I would not be doing my job if I did not talk about my members' concerns in public forums. So I continued to give interviews and issue press releases. The result? Lukaszuk refuses to meet with me, EVER. "

"So the message has been crystal clear – toe the line and you get access. Refuse to play along and you get added to the long list of Albertans who are excluded," says McGowan.

Seems to me that's a pretty good sign of a code of silence – or should that be cone of silence? – in Alberta. If you want to get anything done with government, talk only behind closed doors. I've heard that advice from some Tory lobbyists and insiders. The doctors, for instance, were told, if you go public, you won't get anywhere. No partisan politics. That's how it works here.

But Thomas Lukaszuk takes a different view. "I had only one meeting with Gil McGowan him andf asked him if he was willing to work with me in a constructive manner and cast politics aside. But he just went out of his way to criticize everything," said Lukaszuk.

"If I was walking on water, Gil would say, ' he can't swim.' He's more interested in politicking than the substantive issues."

So Lukaszuk's strategy is to ignore the AFL, an umbrella organization of many unions, and hold talks with each union individually. It's works well, says the minister.In fact, some of those other unions say they aren't happy with Gil, he reports – a fact we haven't heard in public and won't likely, I presume.

"If Gil has any comments, he can meet with the deputy minister. Meeting with Gil is not a productive use of my time," says Lukaszuk. Gil's big mistake was alo talking about gettting rid of Conservative governments, he adds.

SO HERE'S THE QUESTION: Why do the Tories prefer all the discussion about public issues to happen only with them, behind closed doors? It's a great way to control the public debate. But really, what's so bad for THEM if people talk out loud ? They could look like heroes for fixing things.

(By the way, Lukaszuk noted some confusion in my story. He noted that he earned his reputation as a rare, outspoken Edmonton MLA in 2001-o4 after his first victory. He won with comfortable margin, so it is erroneous to suggest he was allowed to be outspoke to save his seat. It was his second election, 2004, that he squeaked by.)

Meanwhile,young Calgary MLA Jonathon Denis also called me with a comment that I'm happy to pass along. Denis, now minister of housing, who this week announced another $100 million for affordable housing in Edmonton, used to be among the Fiscal Four. He and Rob Anderson were the backbench fiscal hawks who hassled the government about over spending. The Fiscal Four were called to a meeting with the premier's right-hand man, Ron Glen. According to Anderson, Glen told them to back off the tough questions, that senior cabinet ministers were unhappy. So Anderson crossed the floor to the WildRose.

Denis remembers it very differently. The meeting wasn't about intimidation or pressure to toe the line, he said, it was just a routine call, the premier's office checking in with the four ambitious guys, he said. They were not told to back off.

So does that mean intimdation is in the eye of the beholder? Does it look differently if, shortly after, you end up in a cabinet post? Of if you cross the floor?

One last little item. Dave Hancock, who has been a Tory forever, was shocked when I told him that people whowere looking at joining the Alberta Party were afraid to be publicly identified. Many didn't want to give their names a year ago. At first Hancock downplayed the fact. Albertans usually keep their voting preference to themselves, he said Really? Voting Tory is a badge of honour or essential identity in most parts of Alberta.

Then Hancock said: "Do you really think someone would believe they would get into trouble for saying they were in the Alberta party? "That's not the Alberta I live in."

No, he lives in the Tory cocoon.

Edmonton Journal, Fri May 5 2011
Byline: Sheila Pratt

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