Alberta NDP slams UCP, ex-finance minister for big COVID-19 bonus to health chief

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EDMONTON — Alberta Opposition Leader Rachel Notley says the United Conservative Party government, particularly former finance minister Travis Toews, must bear the responsibility and fallout for the record-setting six-figure bonus payment to the chief medical officer of health.

Notley said Wednesday she isn’t passing judgment on whether the payout to Dr. Deena Hinshaw is merited.

But she said the payout has to be set against a government that, at the same time, was trying to cut the pay of front-line health workers in collective bargaining during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It is jaw dropping to me that they would then turn around and offer up a 60 per cent bonus to someone who had — by her own admission — chosen not to completely exercise her authority and (instead) hand over decision-making power to an incredibly ill-informed cabinet,” Notley told reporters in Calgary.

The CBC, gleaning information from the government’s sunshine salary list, reported Monday that Hinshaw received a bonus of almost $228,000 for COVID-19 work in 2021 — the highest such cash benefit payout to any provincial civil servant since the list went public six years ago.

That figure, on top of her regular salary, put Hinshaw’s pay at more than $591,000.

Unions, including the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees have, like Notley, lambasted the payout as a travesty given the concurrent government steps to reduce pay and jobs in front-line health care.

Notley also said Toews’ claim he didn’t know about the payment cannot be believed.

“If it is true, then it is demonstrative of someone who has no business being finance minister in any government, and certainly not leading in government,” she said.

“There’s just no way that this should have happened under his watch.”

Toews is one of seven contenders seeking to replace Premier Jason Kenney, who announced he will soon be resigning the leadership after gaining a lacklustre 51 per cent support in a party leadership vote.

He and two other candidates left cabinet to avoid a conflict of interest during the race.

Christine Myatt, Toews’ spokesperson, responded to Notley in a statement.

"Mr. Toews did not authorize or approve this payment. In fact, he was not aware it was made. It appears this bonus was paid out by the public service without ministerial sign off,” said Myatt.

“Mr. Toews believes that Albertans expect their tax dollars to be spent wisely and with the greatest oversight.

“That is why he has promised to change the rules to ensure this does not happen again."

Toews’ campaign team tweeted out Wednesday a graphic stating that no new bonuses would be authorized without a cabinet minister’s explicit authorization.

The payout has reopened public divisions and debate over Hinshaw and the government’s handling of the pandemic and the health restrictions it imposed to combat the spread of the illness.

Kenney and Hinshaw have been criticized for acting too late in multiple waves of the pandemic. Hinshaw has also been criticized for not exercising more authority under emergency legislation, but instead subordinating her role to one of cabinet adviser rather than independent decision maker.

The issue threatens to become a wedge topic in the leadership race, with candidates such as former Wildrose party leaders Danielle Smith and Brian Jean wooing the section of the party base that bitterly resented vaccine mandates and other government-mandated restrictions.

“(The slogan) ‘we’re all in this together’ didn’t mean what we thought it did," Smith wrote on Twitter Monday. "Albertans are rightly stunned and outraged they gave Dr. Hinshaw a $228K COVID bonus."

Smith has promised that if she wins the Oct. 6 vote to replace Kenney, she will not impose any such restrictions again.

Jean wrote on Twitter on Monday: “While Albertans were losing businesses, while our health system was collapsing under mismanagement, the people on the Sky Palace balcony signed off on an all-time record bonus.”

Sky Palace referred to Kenney, Toews and others, being caught on camera having drinks and ignoring gathering rules while on the balcony of the Federal Building, near the legislature, during COVID-19.

It has come to symbolize the one-rule-for-us, another-for-them criticism of Kenney’s administration during COVID-19.

Alberta Health has said Hinshaw was paid as per a long-standing policy and financial calculation tied to emergencies.

The payout was one of the COVID-19 bonuses paid to 107 employees in management totalling $2.4 million.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 3, 2022.

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press

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