Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Conservative downsizing of public service a “bark worse than its bite”: report

OTTAWA — The Conservative government’s promised austerity came with a “bark worse than its bite” as it downsized Canada’s public service by 19,200 jobs and left the size of government bigger than it was during 13 years of Liberals rule.
Ian Lee, a professor at Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business, said the job cuts since Prime Minister Stephen Harper came to power in 2006 amount to little more than “alleged downsizing.” In a newly released paper, he concluded the Conservatives grew the public service more than any government in 20 years, adding more jobs than they will cut by 2015.
“Increasingly Stephen Harper is revealed to be the 21st-century Conservative equivalent of Mackenzie King, the master incrementalist, who famously said ‘lean to the left, lean to the right but straddle the centre,” he wrote.
In his paper, published in the latest edition of How Ottawa Spends, Lee compared the reduction strategies of the Mulroney, Chrétien and Harper governments.
Former prime minister Brian Mulroney vowed to balance the books when he came to power but failed to slay the mounting deficit after privatizing Crown corporations, signing NAFTA and bringing in the goods and services tax. He also promised to get rid of public servants “with pink slips and running shoes” but ended up giving them nearly ironclad job security.
The Chrétien government introduced a program review that paved the way for the biggest downsizing in history — cutting $17 billion in spending and 55,000 jobs in the public service military and RCMP.
The size of the public service bottomed out at about 288,500 employees by the end of the Liberals’ downsizing. Departments began hiring again in the 2000s and grew steadily, adding more jobs than were lost during 1990s.
A big surge came with the election of the Conservatives in 2006 and peaked in 2010-2011 at 375,500 employees — including 283,400 in the core public service and agencies and another 92,100 in the military and RCMP.
But Lee said the Conservative government came to power with much hype, fear and expectations of a “hidden agenda” to shrink the size of government.
He said his analysis shows the massive cuts expected never materialized, disappointing the government’s hard-core conservative supporters. Meanwhile the opposition and unions call them “excessive and ruinous” to the public service and to Canadians who rely on federal programs and services. The unions are still united in their campaign against further cuts to the public service.
Lee argues the “empirical record” simply doesn’t support the Conservatives’ claims that they made major reductions in the public service, nor their opponents’ claims that the government has been “savage in imposing draconian, unprecedented cuts.”
“Both are appealing to their base, which in turn supports fundraising for the party, or in the case of the PS unions, greater support — which has been wavering — for the PS union leadership. In short, the federal public service is now larger than when they came to power in 2006 — notwithstanding the claims by the Harper Conservatives and the public sector unions.”
The Conservative government began taking aim at spending in 2006 with a $1-billion target reduction by 2007-2008. It then launched a series of departmental spending reviews, including the one-time strategic and operating review across government to find $5.2 billion in savings. Lee noted the Parliamentary Budget Office estimated cuts in the 2010 and 2011 budgets eliminated 4,000 jobs.
The downsizing began in earnest with the 2012 budget calling for the elimination of 19,200 jobs over three years — an eight-per-cent reduction from the employment peak in 2010-2011. By November 2012, Treasury Board announced it had already eliminated nearly 11,000 jobs and was halfway to its target. Most of those reductions were handled by attrition and retirements and the rest with the buyout, early retirement or education packages offered under the Workforce Adjustment Agreement negotiated with unions to manage layoffs.

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