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What’s More Dangerous Than a Bear?

Every year, Ontario publishes the Sunshine List which is a list of all public sector employees earning $100,000/yr. or more and many eagerly look forward to as one of the first rites of spring. What better way to celebrate the beginning of the end of a long winter than working ourselves up into a frenzied lather over the increase in the number of public sector workers earning in excess of $100,000.

“What more proof does one need that the public sector is nothing but greedy pigs at the trough” is the annual refrain at least until the maple syrup starts to flow at the sugar bushes at which point they get spring fever and move on to more important things like the NHL playoffs.

Government does cost too much but blaming public sector employees is like blaming an assistant store manager at Target for Target’s colossal failure in Canada.

In a word – it’s absurd.

Public sector employees don’t just fall out of the sky; they don’t sneak into town late at night in dark, hooded clothing, their faces painted black to occupy government offices nor do they clone themselves like amoebas. They’re hired and almost always as a result of a need that has been created by politicians that have been elected by the same voters than whine and complain when it turns out that it costs money to deliver all those ‘free’ services they voted to receive.

The former gun registry is an example.

The federal Liberal government created a gun registry to provide the illusion of increasing gun safety. The projected cost was $200 million. It ended up costing more than $2 billion while employing fewer than 400 people (very few of whom made anything close to $100,000/yr by the way) but they were located in the Miramachi in New Brunswick and there were extensive additional costs nobody had thought about.

The Conservative government cancelled the program. Great. It was a waste of money that accomplished nothing. Unfortunately, they didn’t cancel the cost. Instead, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that the government would move the Government’s payroll branch to Miramichi from Ottawa so that none of the former employees of the Gun Registry would lose their jobs.

Basically, to save approximately 350 unskilled data entry clerk jobs, the Prime Minister decided to disrupt and relocate some 3500 highly skilled finance sector jobs. You can see the cost savings mounting already can’t you.

The self-serving stupidity of this kind of political thinking is found in the details.

If all of the government employees agreed to move, not one former Gun Registry employee would be given a job – there simply wouldn’t be an opening. As could be expected, however, the majority opted not to move but that created two new problems. First the government now had to pay to train unskilled workers to do skilled accounting jobs. Second, under the terms of the Public Service collective agreement, it had to find jobs for those who chose to remain in Ottawa with their families when their job was relocated to Miramachi.

It will take up to three years to complete the transition.

The entire mess was further complicated by the fact that there wasn’t enough housing available in Miramachi for a major influx of new government workers. Quite simply the housing market couldn’t fill demand.

All of that plus the usual complexities normally associated with a major relocation of a few thousand jobs is expensive – very expensive as is trying to run a government that is increasingly spread out all over the country.

And that, my friends, is the kind of straight ahead thinking that every single government at all levels operate in this country.

In the private sector, the Gun Registry would have been shut down, employees laid off with severance and minimal disruption to the larger corporation which would have realized savings from that moment on.

This is the same government that grew the federal service by 43,000 employees to implement its Economic Action Plan and that has only been able to reduce that increase by about 30,000. You can be damn sure that this year, being an election year, more job hiring is coming to implement some of the new promises being made pre-election campaign.

It’s pretty much the same story at all levels of government. There is no such thing as reduction – the bureaucracy, at best, remains static for a bit and then resumes growing.

Public sector employees have no hand in these decisions nor have they had a hand in all of the byzantine legislative requirements like employment equity and language policy that get tacked on to hiring and employment policies. Those decisions are purely political but it is public sector employees who take the hit for those decisions and the Sunshine List is just one more example of it.

The Sunshine List or more accurately, The Public Salary Disclosure Act was first introduced in Ontario in 1996 by the Conservative Government of Mike Harris and it was almost a great idea. What would have made it a great idea is if the salary levels had been indexed to inflation. If it had been properly indexed, the list would have been reduced by 83% because the equivalent of a $100,000 in 1996 would today be approximately $145,000. and would be a more accurate representation of government salary expense growth.

I know – some of you are saying that $100,000 is a lot of money and it is but the truth is that $100,000/yr today is the equivalent of approximately $66,000/yr in 1996. Where does it end? If it isn’t properly indexed it means that by 2025, almost all of the public sector salaries will be on the list which pretty much makes it pointless because you would be listing people earning the equivalent of entry-level salaries in 1996.

There’s another point that often gets overlooked and which completely defeats the original purpose and intent of the Sunshine List. All it does now is to provide a momentary opportunity for some media commentary and a bunch of whining and gripping that is much noise but which does not actually do anything to effect change.

Much of the list is comprised of some pretty necessary folks including hydro linemen – remember them? They were the guys pulling serious overtime in sub-zero weather to restore power in the Toronto area after the ice-storm. It also includes police officers, nurses and a raft of other highly skilled folks who end up putting in a considerable amount of overtime because government no longer knows how to properly staff core services effectively – if it ever did.

Of course there are some who make handsome salaries and I agree are ridiculously overpaid but they aren’t representative of the majority on the Sunshine List. They tend to be part of the privileged class, the politically-connected who are appointed to their positions by those same politicians we keep electing to save us money.

They aren’t representative of the broader public sector.

This constant carping about overpaid public sector workers encouraged Mike Harris (yes, the same Mike Harris who created the Sunshine List) into cutting safety inspectors for water treatment plants against the advice of his own environment ministry because – well – who needs them? The result, as a public enquiry later confirmed, was the tragedy at Walkerton. The water treatment facility wasn’t properly inspected and people died.

All of this focus on the wrong thing has led to reductions in food inspectors, medical practitioners and transportation safety inspectors. The results of those cuts are starting to be seen in tragic ways more and more frequently. It has not led to the reduction or controlling of salaries for the high and mighty.

Even the federal Parliament just gave itself a raise even as it continues to dither over salary increases for federal public servants.

The simple reality is that most of things we’re paying for are essential and they cost money. You won’t find very many administrative clerks earning six figures.

So here’s the deal. Quit picking on teachers, nurses, police officers, firefighters and hydro workers who are out there providing real services to us. It’s time to quit whining about the clerks who make sure our EI, chld benefit and pension cheques get out on time. They’re just doing their jobs and they are not only worth what we pay them – in many cases, they’re probably underpaid.

If you want to rag on someone start with the guys you elected because those are the guys who are appointing their friends to the high paying jobs. Those are the guys who are constantly passing new legislation that creates a need for more workers which balloons government cost. In fact, blame them for all of the increases in government spending because none of them, including the new Conservative premier of Alberta, have the balls to cut or manage spending properly.

They may end a program with great fanfare but the cost just gets silently reallocated in politically-expedient ways to something else as it did following the closure of the Gun Registry. It doesn’t matter who you elect, all governments from all parties operate the same way once in power and will continue to operate that way until we put a stop to it.

How? Good question but I suspect a good start would be stop drinking ideologically-spiked Kool aid and deluding ourselves with partisan fairy-tales into believing that one party provides better economic management than another. They’re politicians and arguing over which is better is like arguing about whether a brown bear is more dangerous than a black one. Even rational fools know that all bears are dangerous.

There are no simple solutions and it’s time we grew up and stopped clinging to partisanship and started to accept that politicians from all parties are even more dangerous than bears.

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© 2015 Maggie’s Bear

all rights reserved The written content of this article is the sole property of Maggie’s Bear but a link to it may be shared by those who think it might be of interest to others

Twitter: @maggsbear – Facebook: Maggie’s Bear  – ivmaki@sympatico.ca

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  • oldwhiteguy

    I am of the opinion that we can do without 25% of all paper pushing bureaucrats. we do indeed require people to run the business of government but we do not need them sitting around trying to come up with new ideas on how to fleece the already over burdened taxpayer.

    • MaggiesBear

      Do you have a lot of experience with the public sector? I do and the stereotype is shopworn and wrong.

      • oldwhiteguy

        yes. and I see no reason for a great many of them. Ottawa has buildings full of people that push paper from one place to another and produce absolutely nothing. the provinces are the same.

        • Gerry

          The 25% estimate works on the basis that for every 3 program based employees there is a fourth needed to provide the necessary support to those positions (not necessarily in one body but across the personnel, payroll, clerical, etc positions). In order to realize the 25% reduction one would need to get rid of the 3 program based employees as the simple 25% reduction simply increases inefficiency.

          The more pertinent issue is to reduce the overall involvement of government in our lives. Yes civil servants do expand existing programs perhaps in part to enlarge their purview but more often because it seems to be needed and contributes to some notion of making things better. It is that ever expanding encroachment based on good intentions that is insidious and needs to be curtailed. Government, which means both the political and bureaucratic classes, need to pulled back to a much more limited role of government. One that avoids efforts at social engineering based on some utopian notion that is ill thought through. And that relates directly to my experience in government, the implications of policy decisions are poorly thought through let alone analysed as the tests used tend to be ideological rather than practical.

          • MaggiesBear

            You’re right about government being too involved in our lives. Every rule, every process, every social program, every employment equity hiring practice and every cheque, every report to politicians and their committees requires bureaucrats to do the work. Could the bureaucracy be improved? Of course it could but they are hamstrung by excessive legislative requirements, computer equipment that is generations out of date, absurd requirements imposed by the political elite. Bureaucrats don’t create the rules and interference in our lives. They merely implement the decisions made by politicians. If we want less and more effective government, it’s time to stop deluding ourselves. We need to quit griping about payroll clerks and data administrators and start bringing our politicians to heel.

            • charlie98

              why do I think that bureaucrats actually do create the rules. Politicians don’t have the smarts to create rules, they simply come up with grandiose plans and delegate the rule making to the bureaucracy.

              Never underestimate the ability of bureaucrats to look after themselves, empire building is not only the purview of politicians.

              been there, done that

              • MaggiesBear

                In actual fact, it is the PMO that is setting the agenda these days. Even spending that was approved in last year’s budget has had to be approved a second time by the PMO. Nothing is allowed unless it has the PMO’s stamp of approval. The bureaucrats merely tug their forelocks and bow.

                But we’re wandering from the issue which was the Sunshine list. The list is not an accurate representation of out of control government spending.It is not properly indexed to inflation which means that positions never intended to be on the list now are on the list and a vast majority of those on the list are not bureaucrats. They are folks just like you and I who provide essential services like law enforcement, firefighting, medical care and education.

          • oldwhiteguy

            i agree.

          • MaggiesBear

            You’re right about government being too involved in our lives. Every rule, every process, every social program, every employment equity hiring practice and every cheque, every report to politicians and their committees requires bureaucrats to do the work. Could the bureaucracy be improved? Of course it could but they are hamstrung by excessive legislative requirements, computer equipment that is generations out of date, absurd requirements imposed by the political elite. Bureaucrats don’t create the rules and interference in our lives. They merely implement the decisions made by politicians. If we want less and more effective government, it’s time to stop deluding ourselves. We need to quit griping about payroll clerks and data administrators and start bringing our politicians to heel.

        • MaggiesBear

          They push paper because they are required to push paper not because they get a kick out of it.If you want to stream line the bureaucracy, get politicians to stop making ridiculous rules and imposing absurd requirements that create a lot of unnecessary busy work.

        • MaggiesBear

          They push paper because they are required to push paper not because they get a kick out of it.If you want to stream line the bureaucracy, get politicians to stop making ridiculous rules and imposing absurd requirements that create a lot of unnecessary busy work.Need more proof of who is responsible? Consider the fact that the current Conservative government has not only increased the public service by more than 13,000 but has also increased the number of Members of Parliament. It seems to me that is government growing rather than being reduced and bureaucrats had nothing to do with those decisions.

          • oldwhiteguy

            it seems that the bureaucracy controls the government not the other way around.