Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Alberta's Public Servants Deserve a Better Government to Work With

Wildrose Premier Prentice thinks if he says something often enough then Albertan’s will accept it as a truth. For example, if he says often enough that the biggest problem (other than the so-called deficit problem, which is in fact an ideological debt) is the cost of the public service, then this must be true. Trouble is, he is wrong.

First, the public service is the size it is because of decisions the Progressive Conservatives have made. We do realize that part of the Premiers fantasy world is that he represents “new management” (notice that this isn’t the same as new leadership), as if this means that he is the CEO of a completely different and totally new government. Clear nonsense, as we all know. He is leading almost the exact same group of people (with a few exceptions) who agreed to the current salary and pension arrangements, who headed Ministries which were allowed to grow and who gave themselves pay rises.

Second, his suggestion that there is a need for a coordinated approach to public sector pay is exactly what the Redford Government (remember that?) actually did. A group of Ministers who led the largest employers (Jeff Johnson, Fred Horne, Dave Hancock, Thomas Lukaszuk met weekly to coordinate their approach to public sector pay. Jeff Johnson repeated Dave Hancock’s feat of bargaining for teachers pay Provincially rather than via each of the school boards, which used to be their statutory duty. Thus the reason pay is what it is that cabinet and a coordinated group of Ministers made it so.

Third, the reason pensions are not reformed is that Dave Hanckock as Premier “killed” the pension reform bill the former Finance Minister Doug Horner insisted was needed and the Wildrose Premier Prentice has not reintroduced it.

Fourth, Alberta actually spends less per capita on its public services than many other Provinces in Canada. As of now, we rank 6th in Canada in spending per capita on health, education and other public services. After the proposed budget cuts, we will likely by in 8th place. According to figures published by the Royal Bank of Canada, Alberta currently spends about $9,786 per person on public services, slightly less than the average for other provinces. If the proposed cuts are enacted, this would be reduced to $8,905, ahead of only Ontario and Quebec, whose more urbanized populations allow them to deliver services more cheaply.

Fifth, the average teacher is Alberta (and there is a big difference in pay between a starting teacher and a Principal) earns $93,681 – up $9,414 since 2010. The average MLA earns $127,300 – up $49,162 since 2010. We can argue whether these salaries are high or low, but the reality is that the decisions to award them were all made by Government (in fact imposed by Government in the case of teachers – they were not bargained for, they were imposed).

Finally, Alberta’s debts (including debt guarantees, contingent liabilities and program obligations) are around $200,176,000 and rising, though our net debt position is positive. We do pay over $530 million a year in interest payments and we are incurring more debt as we rush to catch up on infrastructure not replenished during the Klein era and not strategically developed to match population growth. We are likely to find ourselves playing constant catch up on this file. Yet at the same time as we accelerate our building program for schools, we are looking likely to be reducing our expenditure on hiring teachers. These are all Government of Alberta decisions.

Attacking the public service and asking them to carry the can so that Government can continue to support those who can afford to pay more taxes and to support a Government that seems ideologically incapable of making sound economic decisions (as we shall soon see – budget on March 27th) is lowering morale. Many of the smartest people in Government are looking to leave and will do so when the Government starts to reintroduce pension reform and roll back wages. We need to honour and respect smart public servants and encourage them to act not as supplicants to a lost and gone Government but as servants for the public good. High quality, strategically focused and capable public servants who are remunerated well for the work they do and act as representatives of the peoples interest is exactly what Alberta desperately needs right now. Attacking them and making them “scapegoats” undermines them. Not at all what Alberta needs.

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