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Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Candidate Consensus to Solve Teacher Pension Issue

I made a mistake in the entry below. In fact Dr. Oberg's UPL proposal on the teacher's unfunded pension liability did not include a "total wage freeze" for a decade. What he proposed was that teachers accept the same compensation adjustments as MLAs receive. That provides for an automatic increase every year based on the average of the total wage and salary increases of all working Albertans.

Sorry for the mistake. The correct information was sent to me from the teacher side of the issue.

The answer to a question from the floor at last nights PC Forum was surprising to me. There was almost full candidate consensus that the outstanding teacher’s unfunded pension liability (UPL) was still a debt of the province and it had to be addressed.

Some candidates were vaguer than others on how they would tackle the issues but there was still a broad consensus that it is an outstanding issue that must be dealt with. Gary McPherson said it best…”I guess the province is not yet out of debt.”

Oberg said last night that he offered a solution “years ago but it was rejected” - by both Caucus and the teachers, I might add. Oberg was dealing with the UPL at the time of 2002 teacher’s strike – which he caused by the way. What he proposed then was the province pick up the UPL if the teachers would agree to a total wage freeze and not have the right to strike for 10 years. The impracticality of that was evident to the Caucus and the teachers. Just look how much Alberta’s labour situation has changed in the past 4 years.

If we use his scheme, with frozen wages and no contract negotiations for a decade for teacher’s and their pay does not stay competitive they leave the profession and maybe even leave the province. What is worse Oberg’s policy straight-jacket discourages young people from even entering the profession. And Oberg wants to freeze the wages of every teacher in Alberta for an entire decade and ensure they have no other contract negotiations either. Our teacher population is aging and we need all the new blood and continuing talent we can attract and keep in this profession. That is vital to realizing the province’s future potential. What Dr. Oberg is suggesting is neither smart politics nor a strategic policy initiative– especially in a booming and growing province like Alberta – especially now that we are also experiencing a growing baby boom.

We need a new Premier who gets the big picture, who thinks systemically past the next election cycle and can see beyond his nose. Education is emerging as one of the leading issues in the PC leadership race. It is pretty obvious the Oberg “dog” of a proposal for solving the teacher’s UPL just won’t hunt. Nevertheless Oberg says he will try it again. Caucus has recently kicked him out and I don’t think the teachers attitudes towards Oberg have softened since 2002. Given his past, he is clearly not the right guy to be solving anything to do with the future education – including the teacher’s unfunded pension liability issues.

Jim Dinning also responded to the teacher pension issues. He was the candidate with the most significantly different perspective on the issue. He said he knew teachers saw the unfunded pension liability issue “as a problem but he was not sure as Premier that is where he would put $6B." To be sure $6B is a big number. Strange reaction though I thought, especially from a proven and competent former Provincial Treasurer. Dinning undoubtedly understands that if we don’t deal with it now the liability balloons over time to over $46B. Isn’t an ounce of prudent prevention still worth a pound of painful cure in a fiscally conservative world?

If we merely designated a part of the Heritage Fund and use that investment revenue we solve the problem. Isn’t the Heritage Fund all about helping to meet the future needs of the province? Isn’t the unfunded pension liability all about the future needs of the province? How hard is that?