Do civil servants in Atlantic Canada earn too much money for what they do? Are too many of them routinely showing up at the public trough?
These are two, separate questions, and as provocative as they are, they tend to conflate in the hands of traditional, market-driven advocates who are convinced that small government – in the absence of no government, at all – represents the best of all possible worlds.
Almost no one, these days, talks about efficient government, a notion that once held a place of prominence in the thinking rooms and chat parlors of the early 1960s across North America – and, of course, never again.
But does efficient government mean fewer workers doing less work or a greater number of workers doing more important work?
The Halifax-based Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS) is convinced that the regional economy will be improved by radically cutting its various civil services.
“In all four Atlantic provinces, the public sector workforce is significantly larger, relative to population, than the national average,” writes Ben Eisen, director of research, and Shaun Fantauzzo, policy analyst, at AIMS, in a recent commentrary.
“Furthermore, the gap in average compensation between public and private sector workers is larger in the region than in most other parts of the country. As governments across the region seek to identify strategies to control deficits and net debt, working gradually to reduce the public sector wage bill is one option that deserves careful attention.”
Additionally, they contend, “according to recent data from Statistics Canada, in 2013, the civilian public sector in Canada accounted for 18 per cent of all jobs nationally. By comparison, this figure is 23 per cent in Atlantic Canada, where all provinces exceed the national average on this metric. In Prince Edward Island, the figure is 23 per cent, in Nova Scotia it is 22 per cent and in New Brunswick it is 20 per cent. In Newfoundland and Labrador, 28 per cent of all jobs are found in the civilian public sector, the highest level in the country.”
To which an unaligned observer might wonder: So what?
Don’t these folks who work on the public dime also pay taxes, buy houses, enroll their kids in day-care programs, contribute to charities, underwrite the cost of their children’s university educations?
Are they not, in so many regards, just like the rest of us?
It’s not the salaries and benefits they earn, or even their numbers, that should concern us. It’s what they do with their time in the course of their daily duties. And that has everything to do with the frigid, disingenuous corporate culture they endure and to which they are too often inured.
Successive federal and Atlantic provincial governments have, in recent years, forced their bureaucracies to carry the water buckets of public opprobrium. After all, why not? Civil servants are easy targets, easily manipulated to do their political masters’ bidding on pain of various employment adjustment programs and other vile euphemisms for: “You’re fired and you have five minutes to clean out your desk.”
Now, we perceive in New Brunswick a wholly cynical move to buy public approval by curtailing the legal bargaining powers of unions that represent civil servants.
Or, as the province’s duly appointed Czar of strategic review, Health Minister Victor Boudreau, told the Saint John Telegraph-Journal not long ago: “What happens in settling some of these wages is a bit of what they call a leap frog, where one province settles with a particular union. . .and then in the next province, their contract is up six months later, so they want to be two per cent higher than the province that just settled.”
Again, so what?
Should we not wheel this issue back to the central discussion where it belongs?
Which civil servants in Atlantic Canada earn too much money for what they do? Which ones arrive at the public trough with little or nothing to show for their slight effort to make an appearance?
The issue is not, ultimately, about big government versus small government.
It’s only about good government.