Wildrose calls it radical. The NDP says it’s wonderful. Nothing shows Alberta’s power upheaval more vividly than the debate over raising the minimum wage.
Appeared: Calgary Herald, June 22, 2015, page A5
On Monday, Wildrose Leader Brian Jean asked Premier Rachel Notley if the NDP “is committed to radical policy actions that will simply cost Albertans their jobs.”
Notley replied, “I absolutely believe that increasing the minimum wage will lead to more jobs … When you put more money into the pockets of low-income people they spend it, and they spend it in their local economy faster than anybody else does.
“In fact, study after study show that this actually grows jobs and it grows economic activity.”
All the old truisms of Alberta political debate — business good, unions bad; spending evil, cost-cutting great — are reversed. The Ralph Klein era is no longer a memory; it’s history. The Parkland Institute stomps the Fraser Institute.
The NDP simply doesn’t buy business arguments that any extra costs will destroy jobs and hurt the economy. To this, the right splutters with outraged disbelief. Wildrose MLAs cannot fathom how the government could actually believe its own stuff.
But the New Democrats do believe it, ardently. They were unimpressed Monday by a survey of businesses, done by the Alberta Chambers of Commerce, which showed that if the hourly minimum wage goes to $15 over three years, 45 per cent of businesses are very likely to lay people off, and 57 per cent would raise prices.
Finance Minister Joe Ceci said in an interview: “We are mindful of the effect minimum wage increases could have on the business community, owners and workers alike.
“But raising the minimum wage was in our platform and I anticipate that we’ll be dealing with that in short order.”
Jobs Minister Lori Sigurdson will report to cabinet on her consultations with business by the end of the month, he said. Ceci will pay attention, but the focus won’t be solely on business; workers are top of mind.
Like Notley, he believes more pay will bring more prosperity.
“The thing I know about low-income earners is that any increase they get, they will turn around and fully spend within our economy. This is a really good leverager of spending locally to help all businesses do even better.”
The chamber group suggests, in releasing the survey, that business people agree with a modest increase to minimum wage, but want other policy measures to help supply more take-home pay.
Essentially, they’re asking the wider public to assume part of the higher-wage burden — sort of a province-wide tipping scheme. The NDP won’t be impressed with that.
There’s also a strong gender tint to this debate. On Monday, Wildrose MLA Angela Pitt attacked the NDP for creating a ministry for the status of women, which she painted as a useless $1-million handoff to Edmonton bureaucrats.
Notley countered that Alberta’s wage inequality between women and men is the highest in Canada. The ministry will focus on that and other problems.
Recently, the Parkland Insitute published a study claiming that 15 years of flat-tax policy have severely depressed women’s pay, partly by encouraging unpaid work.
The minimum wage hikes will likely benefit women more than men, simply because more are clustered at the low end of the scale.
Beyond that, Notley hasn’t said there will be any specific measures to force more pay equity in Alberta. But it’s certainly in the air.
Through all this, both Wildrose and the PCs seem to feel the NDP is already destroying itself. The reverse may be true.
Notley is aiming her income and tax policies at younger voters, both urban and rural, who finally woke up for the May 5 election, sensing they had a chance to end the decades of encrusted conservatism. Now the right continues to ignore the voters with the longest future.
The New Democrats aren’t adrift or confused. They know exactly what they’re doing — rooting out conservatism, and writing the script for the October federal election.
Don Braid’s column appears regularly in the Herald.
[Hyperlinks to the reports mentioned in the article have been added.]