Articles by: Gary Corbett

The Myth About Sick Leave and Public Servants

October 21, 2014 10:09 am
The Myth About Sick Leave and Public Servants

Well, here we go again. The summer is on its way out and public servants everywhere are making their way back to their workplaces. They are preparing for a year that, according to many Public Service (PS) unions, promises to be a banner bargaining round—one where some unions say sick leave is the line in the sand and will not be on the table. No doubt Treasury Board President Tony Clement has other ideas about that.

The sick leave issue has been referred to as a $5-billion liability (the estimated value of the unused, banked public service sick leave). Or, to put it another way, the equivalent of pay the government would have to foot if every public servant left work sick on the same day and never came back. Does anyone really believe that this is possible? While even a union president, past or current, would have to admit, as in any workplace, abuses take place. However, the vast majority of public servants will leave public service life with literally years of sick leave credits in their bank, never to be taken.

So, if sick leave is not the liability the government says it is, and if there is not really any “real” money/liability attached, then why is this government pushing the sick leave bargaining agenda? The answer is it is part of its shell-game playbook. It is not the real issue.

The Conservative shell game is very effective in dealing with its public service unions. Its strategy has been deviously simple. First, get the public pumped up against public servants by making them out as societies “haves” and pointing to things like their huge (but irrelevant) sick leave banks. Second, appeal to Canadians with a platform of fixing the public service. Third, go after the real money, the kind of money that is invested in the current defined benefit pension plans, all the while garnering public support with the public focus on nonsense like sick leave. A perfect deception.

The truth of the matter is sick leave is not a real issue at all. In a shell- game, it is not what is happening in the hand that you see, the interesting stuff is happening in the hand you don’t see. A case in point is the erosion of the public service defined benefit pension plans across the board and as-of-yet articulated impact on society. The government’s shedding of liability and responsibility is a real money grab like no other, far more pervasive than a sick leave.

In December of last year, the Alward government of New Brunswick repealed the N.B. Public Service Pension Act, which essentially eliminated any liability on the government’s part for paying its employees’ pension indexing and cost of living allowances— promises made to past and current public servants. This repeal is being fought in court by the N.B. Pensioners Coalition but, astonishingly and disappointingly, not by the PS unions. This will mean there is no guarantee of indexing for pensioners, higher premiums and lower pensions for current public servants. This new shared-risk model is misnamed. Perhaps more appropriately called the no-risk-to-government model, it will see government hand over the management and investments of funds to private sector interests who will take a healthy commission off the top, while reducing—or even eliminating—indexing and cost of living allowances. There is no shared risk. Risk is transferred to the employees and pensioners.

New Brunswick is just the tip of the iceberg the tide is pushing aground. In August, firefighters and police “disgraced themselves” (not my words) in Montreal when they shut down city hall to protest Bill 3. This bill was introduced by the provincial government to close a municipal pension gap approaching $4-billion. Bill 3 would override existing agreements in 1,100 municipalities and affect some 216 existing defined benefit pension plans, leaving unionized employees to retroactively contribute far more to their pension premiums while having to share the cost of any plugging past deficits. Existing pensioners would no longer be guaranteed cost-of-living increases while the province refers to its power to order binding arbitration if an agreement is not reached within a set deadline.

Sound familiar? Is it a model that Treasury Board is looking at? You can bet your salary on it. The reality is that this is happening and it is likely coming to the federal public service plan. It could make one ill enough to want to take a sick day or two.

Public Service Week: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

August 21, 2014 1:20 pm
Public Service Week: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

Twenty-two years ago, then-MP Marlene Catterall introduced a private member’s bill recognizing the third week of June as National Public Service Week, a week to celebrate the work and achievements of the people who make up the Public Service of Canada.

The bill was the idea of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), the largest union representing scientists and other professionals in Canada. Despite being proposed by a union and sponsored by an opposition Liberal MP, the bill received the support of the majority Conservative government of Brian Mulroney and quickly became law. We celebrated PS Week from June 15 to June 21, but this year was different.

Most notably, the initiator of this great event, the PIPSC, following the lead of a larger and more militant union, asked its members to consider boycotting Public Service Week. What an asinine and unproductive move for any federal union, let alone the one that lead the creation of PS Week. It really sends all the wrong messages. Imagine a union urging government employees to ‘not celebrate’ their role and contribution to Canada and the public good–even as senior management does its best, within very limited resources, to recognize and promote a respectful and co-operative workplace. What are unions thinking? Or are they?

Governments come and go, but despite its size, the public service and public servants remain and hopefully, so will their unions. As management and labour move forward in a workplace that is more connected and growing more and more complex in terms of labour relations issues, there is an even greater need for constructive management and labour collaboration. It simply makes sense.

Encouraging its members to bail from PS Week activities does nothing to firm up the important relationship between unions and management. While union executives call for boycotts, the rank and file union members know and live the important labour-management relationship on a daily basis. Union members attend management-sponsored events, no matter what their executives say, and further weaken respect for the union movement. Besides, what is wrong with having a hot dog or ice cream with the Commissioner or the Deputy Minister? Well, it might be a way to get that all important message across!

More to the point, there is a huge difference between management and the government of the day. While the relationship with the government may be weak or strong, that relationship is totally distinct from the union-management relationship, which is specifically challenged with improving the workplace in an environment tasked with delivering quality public service to Canadians. Such collaboration is even called for in the (Public Service Labour Relations Act). What are unions thinking? Have unions forgotten their roots where they once were not even asked? Are they not looking to other co-operative models?

Unions and management must continue to work together, even as ideological agendas come and go. And they do come and go. It is important to remember governments change, and with the constantly shifting political ground, another government may make equally tough decisions with respect to its public service. What do unions do then? Do they ask for a repeal of the National Public Service Week: Serving Canadians Better Act? Is it any wonder that PS unions are getting such bad press?

Is it time for unions to stop providing the government with ammo? Is it time to recognize there is a need for even more participation in events like PS Week, not less? Is it time unions focus on things at the core of the movement instead of grandstanding with a weak message that buys them nothing but disrespect? Shouldn’t unions do what they have always done—focus on fair and competitive wages, pension and fairly representing their members in need?

In those areas, unions have always moved the bar and will continue to do so. They gain the respect of management by supporting their membership and by asking the tough questions from the inside.

In 2014, it is still not an exaggeration to say much of what we celebrate and take for granted as a nation—safe food, accurate weather forecasts, meaningful health and environmental regulations, an efficient and secure transportation network, even a fair tax system—are, in large part, thanks to the dedication, skill and perseverance of professional public servants. They deserve to be celebrated, perhaps now more than ever.
Gary_CorbettGary Corbett is Past President and CEO of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada.

Let the Science Speak

December 3, 2013 4:00 pm
Let the Science Speak

Last month, the union I represent released the results of an on-line Environics survey designed to gauge the actual extent and impact of muzzling and political interference among federal scientists. Over 4,000 of the more than 15,000 federal scientists, researchers and engineers invited took part – a remarkable response rate. Not only did the survey reveal that muzzling and political interference are far bigger problems than at first thought, but the silencing of science through a combination of cuts, excessive control of communications, and direct inter-ference is clearly putting Canadians’ health and safety, the environment, and our economic prosperity at risk.

We called our report The Big Chill, for reasons that became apparent almost immediately. According to the survey, 90 per cent of federal scientists do not feel they can speak freely about their work to the media. This alone will be alarming to Canadians who expect openness and accountability from their government. But even more troubling is the discovery that, faced with a departmental decision or action that could harm public health, safety or the environment, nearly as many scientists (86 per cent) do not believe they could share their concerns with the media or public without censure or retaliation.

In other words, a “chill” has settled on federal government science that is even greater than that suggested by the cases so far reported by the media, or that can be blamed simply on poorly designed or implemented communications policies. The Conservatives’ signature 2006 communications policy of the Government of Canada clearly states that the federal public service must “provide the public with timely, accurate, clear, objective and complete information about its policies, programs, services and initiatives.”

However, whatever the Harper government may have promised, these objectives are not being met. Science is increasingly being frozen out of policy decisions and scientists themselves are not able to provide timely, vital scientific information to Canadians. According to the survey, over one-third (37 per cent) report that they were prevented from responding to questions from the public and media by public relations staff or management over the past five years. More alarming, nearly a quarter (24 per cent) report being directly asked to exclude or alter information for non-scientific reasons. In fact, 7 out of 10 (74 per cent) of federal scientists believe the sharing of government science findings with the public has become too restricted over the past five years. And a further 7 out of 10 (71 per cent) believe that the federal government’s ability to develop policy, law and programs based on scientific evidence has been compromised by political interference.

Clearly, if allowed to continue, this poses a risk to public health, safety and the environment. (Fifty per cent of survey respondents said it already does.)

In fact, the impact has already been noticeably felt in departments such as Environment Canada and Fisheries and Oceans, where 62 per cent of scientists believe their departments do not incorporate the best climate science in their policies.

Sometimes the urge to control has no other apparent objective than to control. As one scientist who participated in the survey remarked, “Currently, we are being told off the record (because an email would be subject to an [access-to-information] request) that we have to refer enquiries about the new 30-year climate normals (1980-2010) that have been delayed to media relations.”

When did the weather become a national secret? 

Why can’t Canadians expect timely answers to straightforward scientific questions from a government that prides itself on “retail” politics? Whose interest, if not the public’s, is served by continuing to delay, defund, alter, suppress and, yes, muzzle even the most basic scientific findings on the climate? Where do we turn, if not to federal scientists, for “timely, accurate, clear, objective, and complete information?”

The day the survey results were released, the office of the new Minister of State for Science and Technology, Greg Rickford – whose local riding association had recently described scientists in a fundraising letter to Conservative supporters as “radical ideologues”– responded by repeating the tired, questionable (and irrelevant) talking point: “Our government has made record investments in science.”

The federal government’s efforts to control the science message are out of control. They do not serve science. They do not serve the environment. They do not serve the economy. And they do not serve Canadians. It’s time the government admitted as much and let the science speak.

 

Gary Corbett is President of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, the largest union of scientists and other professionals in Canada. To read the full report, The Big Chill: Silencing Public Interest Science, A Survey, visit www.pipsc.ca/bigchill

 

The (F)laws of Averages

September 24, 2013 10:37 am
The (F)laws of Averages

October is “Healthy Workplace Month.” But you wouldn’t know it by the federal government’s views on sick leave, or from the increase in disability claims among federal government workers, including those related to mental health.

Since the Conservatives first came to power in 2006, disability claims have increased 37 per cent, and today roughly 48 per cent of all new disability claims are related to mental health issues. But if anyone believes that the Conservatives care about the health of federal government employees they should think again.

Many workers in the private sector know that a day not worked is a day not paid.

Many workers in the private sector know that a day not worked is a day not paid.

Early in June, in the midst of his government’s scorched-earth staff and program cuts, Treasury Board President Tony Clement kicked-off National Public Service Week (ordinarily a time of celebration) with news that the government would be “getting tough” on the leave provided to employees unfortunate enough to get sick.

His political message was clear: federal government sick leave is out of control, and taxpayers shouldn’t be made to pay the ever-increasing bill for the country’s largest group of employees. The amount of banked, unused sick leave accumulated by government employees, according to Treasury Board, represents a $5-billion liability. And government workers, said the Minister, on average use 18.2 sick days a year, far more than the average in the private sector.

The Minister went on to say that young and newer employees who face serious illness or disability but who do not have sufficient banked sick leave to qualify for long-term disability shouldn’t be unfairly treated. No one, least of all unions, would disagree. But in the end, Clement’s fiscal check-up on federal government sick leave was a typical blame-the-victim message from a government long past caring about its obligations to truth, let alone its employees.

For starters, the $5-billion liability is grossly misleading since no federal government workers are allowed to cash in their unused sick days when they retire or otherwise leave the government. In fact, many if not most leave with large numbers of unused sick days, proof not only that most do not take advantage of the system, as Clement took pains to acknowl-edge, but that they use their available sick leave sparingly and responsibly.

So what about the average 18.2 days per year taken by government workers? Turns out the Minister included both paid and unpaid days off, as he also acknowledged when asked by reporters. So that number too isn’t a fair reflection of the actual cost to Canadian taxpayers.

Unions, like the rest of the public, don’t have access to any figures other than those the government provides, so we have no way of really assessing their validity. But it seems pretty obvious that a lot of factors can skew the “average” number of sick days. For example, a relatively small percentage of workers off work for long periods of time due to illness or disability can significantly affect an overall average. Workers employed in particularly stressful work environments – correctional services or the military, for example – can also affect the average as can a failure to manage return-to-work options that would allow more employees with a disability to continue working or to return to work sooner.

And what about the private sector? Well, let’s just say that not all workers (especially those without unions) are treated fairly or equally.

Many workers in the private sector are casual, part-time, self-employed, and/or otherwise precariously employed (all of them far more numerous than some might imagine). They know that a day not worked is a day not paid. Nor, for that matter, do they record a sick day. That means that sick leave statistics for the public sector are generally more accurate and reliable than those for the private sector. An apple is not an orange, and shouldn’t be compared to one.

So how do public- and private-sector sick leave averages actually compare? And should it really matter? The short answers are: probably “very closely” and, “yes, it should” – but not for the reasons Tony Clement would have us believe.

Everyone gets sick, sometimes seriously, sometimes permanently. The point of sick leave, like public health care, is to ensure that workers – whether in the private or the public sector – don’t suffer added financial harm on top of the illnesses and disabilities to which we’re all prone.

To a government that has permanently capped health transfer payments to the provinces at a fixed percentage increase, that’s not a fact that fits with their political message, nor to the law of averages. This is something Canadians should consider when the time comes to bargain over who runs the next federal government.

Gary Corbett is President of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, the largest union of scientists and other professionals in Canada.

 

Performance Review

July 24, 2013 11:10 am
Performance Review

This spring, Canadians were astonished to learn that the former head of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal – the federal authority responsible for investigating allegations of discrimination – was fired for “gross mismanagement.” The report filed by the Public Integrity Commissioner, following a two-year investigation prompted by a union complaint, found that the Conservative appointee “repeatedly harassed employees at all levels by referring to them in derogatory terms, by questioning their competencies in the presence of their colleagues and by spreading misinformation about them in the workplace.”

To some, long accustomed to the Harper government’s ideological aversion to accountability, this comes as no surprise. After all, a government that demonstrates so little regard for the environment and the opinion of climate scientists should hardly be expected to care more for human rights and the people hired to investigate violations.

It’s one reason why the announcement in late May by Treasury Board President Tony Clement that the government would be introducing mandatory performance reviews has raised such suspicions. The current government’s record simply fails to reassure anyone that new mandatory performance reviews will be implemented fairly or with actual employee performance in mind.

Of course, mandatory performance reviews are exactly what professionals in the union I represent want and expect to receive. Feedback, negative and positive, is essential if one hopes to grow in any profession. But Clement’s May 28 press conference gave cause for concern even before the microphones were switched off.

“There is simply no way that virtually every single person that the federal government hires is going to perform to the standard we expect,” remarked Clement, referencing rates of dismissal in the private sector of between five and 10 per cent.

Coming midway through the Conservative government’s third term and massive government job cuts, the announcement left the unmistakable impression that “mandatory performance reviews” are downsizing by another name – a sort of permanent quota reduction system tied to private-sector rates of dismissal. It’s not about you. It’s about cutting staff.

After all, it’s not as if managers have been deprived of the opportunity to manage employee performance before now. And as long as managers perform their functions, unions will continue to perform theirs. That’s the way the system is supposed to work, with reference to labour and human rights laws as the occasion warrants.

But there is something else in the air, and unions both public and private know it.

Where once the public sector set the standard for resolving many labour relations issues, now the private sector – with its supposed higher rates of dismissal and lower rates of unionized workers – is held up as the example to follow. That this is happening at the same time some Conservatives federally and provincially are noisily advocating for U.S.-style right-to-work laws and a rollback of legislated provisions that ensure all union members pay their fair share of dues is no coincidence.

The rights and protections of all workers are under assault. For evidence, one need look no further than Bill C-377, recently amended by the Senate, the private member’s bill that claims to make union expenses transparent (unions already make their expenses available to members), and which even Conservative Senator Hugh Segal has said “has an anti-labour bias running rampant.” After the parade of federal budget and financial scandals of recent years – from exorbitant F-35 fighter jets to the missing $3.1 billion in funds earmarked for fighting terrorism – the Harper government’s standards of financial accountability are as tattered and hypocritical as its records on human rights and climate change.

Mandatory performance reviews, while good and necessary in principle, are only the latest tool for a scandal-plagued Conservative government determined to divert attention elsewhere, advance its smaller-government agenda, and reduce the influence of unions. They misuse them at the risk of provoking larger disputes in the future.

Gary Corbett is President of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, the largest union of scientists and other professionals in Canada.

 

Economical with the Truth

May 24, 2013 1:25 pm
Economical with the Truth

If this spring’s federal budget is a prescription for what ails Canada and its economy, it should come with a bright, red warning label: “This budget will do nothing to address job creation, tax evasion, environmental protection, or public safety.” That at least would have fulfilled the government’s obligation to speak truthfully about the budget’s consequences. But as former Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page revealed, Conservative budgets have little to do with the truth.

Take, for example, the Conservatives’ proposal to “connect” people to jobs in a budget that largely holds the line on austerity – including ensuring that the unemployed don’t get too comfortable receiving the reduced benefits to which they’re entitled. The plan is unlikely to produce anything remotely resembling the surge in employment that’s envisioned or needed. What’s needed is a real job creation strategy. What the budget offers are more weak gestures towards creating the right incentives for private sector employers to produce jobs? Ask any unemployed Canadian (especially the young) how that’s been working out for them and you’re likely to find growing disillusionment and resentment. Austerity doesn’t grow an economy. Just ask the International Monetary Fund, which last October broke with convention by acknowledging that austerity in Europe has led to higher unemployment, slower growth and lower government revenues. Turning Canada into the lowest corporate tax haven among G8 countries hasn’t produced credible growth in job numbers (much less government revenues), and the government’s latest dating service for jobs is unlikely to improve the situation.

Then there’s the government’s new Stop International Tax Evasion Program, announced with great fanfare in the budget, which is intended to recoup what the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) says is over $4.5 billion in accumulated unpaid taxes. As one private tax lawyer recently pointed out, it’s unlikely that this government will recover even a fraction of the expected amount. For one thing, CRA’s Voluntary Disclosure Program is already under-staffed and the agency is still absorbing over $300 million in cuts, $60 million of it announced in this budget. For another, the threshold for proving tax evasion is extremely high, which suggests the need for more, not fewer, professional staff capable of undertaking such investigations.

The problem with a government intent on controlling its message is that it ends up communicating very little, even to its own employees. Economic Action Plan 2013 follows a now- familiar pattern of big announcements with disturbingly little detail. In effect, Budget Day has become meaningless. In announcing this spring that a further $33 million will be cut from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), the government refused to deviate from its non-communications strategy. Instead, the party line was that the cuts won’t affect frontline services. The last time DFO was told that was just before this government closed the famed Experimental Lakes Area, the only large-scale outdoor research program of its kind and credited with providing the data that led to legislation reducing acid rain production. We also heard it when it was reported last year that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency was to absorb $19 million in as-yet- undisclosed cuts to its Food Safety program.

In fact, if there is any warning to take from this and previous Conservative budgets it is that public servants – and the public generally – will be kept uninformed about the real impacts of government austerity as long as possible. There seems always to be some previous funding commitment that is repackaged as this year’s investment in infrastructure, or some “operational efficiency” that disguises the death of another world-renowned Canadian program. Is it any wonder why public servants are more than a little sceptical about the government’s latest action plan to “ensure that the public service is affordable, modern and high- performing” by proposing “changes to the labour relations regime?”

In the final analysis, the enormous cuts in the wake of previous “Economic Action Plans” are taking their toll and far outweigh the few, small spending increases announced this year. The promise to get tough on international tax cheats is as ineffective as the commitment to reduce national unemployment numbers. As former Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page forecast in his last year, the 2012 budget will actually slow economic growth in 2013 by nearly 1 per cent and result in 69,000 fewer jobs in the public and private sectors combined. This year’s budget does nothing to change that trend. But then the Conservatives no longer have to contend with Kevin Page, and it’s uncertain how long the Parliamentary Budget Office will remain a force for accountability. Truth, as far as this government goes, is an “operational efficiency.”

Kevin Page: A Hero for Our Time

April 10, 2013 1:04 pm
Kevin Page: A Hero for Our Time

When Kevin Page, Canada’s first Parliamentary Budget Officer, steps down next month after five years on the job, he’ll do so with a respect and admiration accorded few professional public servants – not because he went above and beyond the call of duty (many do) or because he has been particularly outspoken on public matters (many are, especially whistleblowers), but because, like most professionals in the public service, he doggedly maintains that government should tell the truth, even when it refuses to do so.

The Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO) was created following the 2006 federal election, in the wake of the Liberal sponsorship scandal. It has not been an easy ride for Page, the public service and the people of Canada. Although the PBO should be independent, it serves at the pleasure of the Prime Minister. In effect, the PBO watches over the spending of the person who created it. That in a nutshell is the problem.

On the matter of the government’s annual deficit, the government claimed it would be $30 billion. Page said it was $56 billion. Page was right. War, never an inexpensive proposition. The government claimed the Afghanistan mission would cost $2.8 billion. Page said it was closer to $9 billion. Page was right. Who can forget those F-35 jets? The government said the jets would cost $15 billion. The PBO, after exposing some financial finagling by the government that conveniently left out decades of maintenance costs, said the jets would cost $40 billion. Once again, Page was right.

None of these attempts to speak truth to power have endeared Page to the Prime Minister who hired him, and who likely expected he would, if not toe the party line, at least not rock the ship of state.

But the real test of honesty and integrity has come with the implementation of the Harper government’s austerity cuts. Can’t afford to maintain Old Age Security benefits for 65-year-olds? Well, actually, yes we can, said Page.

Throughout the past year, the government has insisted that the cuts will affect only “the back office.” Frontline services, presumably health, safety and protection of the environment, won’t be touched. Page’s assessment of the government’s own numbers has repeatedly thrown cold water on these claims. In return, he has received the kind of chill the Conservatives reserve for their worst enemies. His requests for more information have gone unanswered or faced interminable delay. His calculations have been dismissed out of hand or publicly called into question. His role and reputation as a watchdog were attacked with an intensity usually reserved for environmentalists. Even taking the government to court to reveal details of its proposed cuts and expenses has met mostly with a deafening silence.

It’s not just the numbers, it’s what the numbers say. Their consequences speak to the value of Page’s contribution to current debates.

In November 2012, seven months after the government introduced its austerity budget, the PBO could still find specific information on only 500 of the 19,200 jobs to be eliminated (7,000 are supposed to be lost through attrition). How, for example, will the Canadian Food Inspection Agency ensure compliance with federal regulations on food safety while crash dieting on $19 million in cuts? How will the $46 million cut from Aboriginal Affairs address the concerns of communities now responding to the Idle No More movement? How will Health Canada triage the enormous cuts to its own programs? The government waves these worries away with the easy phrase “operational efficiencies.”

Some things no longer exist simply because, to Conservatives if to no one else, they have ceased to matter. Science and the environment have come in for particular attention. The Experimental Lakes Area, a world-renowned freshwater research facility that proved the effects of acid rain and has been instrumental in developing environmental policy, is eliminated. Environment Canada labs dedicated to studying cancer-causing pollution emissions from smokestacks are shut down. Nor should anyone forget the loss of Statistics Canada’s long-form census to current and future knowledge. Evidence is the new enemy.

It says something about the times we live in that a government can be elected to power on the promise of greater accountability, appoint a watchdog to ensure that accountability, and then delay, debate and discredit that watchdog’s attempts to ensure accountability at every turn. But if Parliament and the people of Canada never learn the true cost to taxpayers and to the country of the Harper government’s austerity cuts, it won’t be the fault or on the watch of Kevin Page. To his credit, Page has done what the job demanded. And that should leave us worried about his replacement, if indeed a replacement is ever found. Unsurprisingly, the process is delayed.

George Orwell once wrote: “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” Kevin Page is not a revolutionary, but if telling truth to power and, more importantly, insisting that powerful elected governments tell the truth to those who elect them are heroic acts, then Kevin Page is a national hero.

Gary Corbett is President of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada.

Photo Credit: Digital Journal

Stephen Harper’s Assault on Democracy

January 16, 2013 11:58 am
Stephen Harper’s Assault on Democracy

Last November, hundreds of delegates from across Canada gathered in Ottawa for the 93rd Annual General Meeting of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC). Discus- sions focused on the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s ongoing cuts to programs and services that continue to jeopardize the security and well-being of Canadians and cause needless anxiety among affected public service employees and their families, many of them in the National Capital Region.

The government’s relentless assault on public servants and their unions and its use of questionable means to change laws is putting the health and security of Canadians at risk. Food safety, environmental protection and sound budgeting are at the top of a long list of casualties as evidence- based decision making loses out to the ideologically-driven decisions of the Conservative government.

The Harper Government cut 19,200 civil service jobs – roughly 6 per cent of the total federal workforce – while outsourcing over $3 billion to private companies with no accountability, security clearances or oversight. They also cut The National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy, the First Nations Statistical Institute, the National Council on Welfare and the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Science (all highly respected for their evidence-based research and analysis). Cutting these four agencies only saved $7.5 million, while the cost to Canada’s international reputation is immeasurable.

In a clearly undemocratic and bullying process, the Harper government then bundled 68 non-budgetary measures and laws into one omnibus budget (Bill C-38) and used its majority in the House of Commons to ensure that no single item could be opposed

or changed. The hypocrisy is nothing less than profound. In 1994, during his first term in Parliament, Harper spoke in the House against such omnibus bills, saying they were “undemocratic.” He argued that Bill C-17, a 1994 omnibus budget bill from the Chrétien government, was contrary to democracy. Harper said: “In the interest of democracy, I ask: how can members represent their constituents on these various areas when they are forced to vote in a block on such legislation and on such concerns?” He implored the Speaker: “You should rule it out of order and it should not be considered by the House in the form in which it has been presented.” It seems that what Harper views as undemocratic is a matter of who is in power. Certainly, his recent actions amount to a disdain of Parliament and abuse of the democratic process.

This winter, Harper’s most pointed attack against unions so far was realized in a whipped majority vote. Bill C-377, if passed by the Senate, will require onerous reporting of union financial information for all to see, and, because this bill amends the Income Tax Act, it applies to every union in Canada. Not only does it require unions to submit financial statements, but it also asks for a detailed list of all transactions and disbursements, along with the name and address of the payer and payee, and the purpose, description and specific amount of the transaction. This is an astounding request coming from the most secretive and controlling government in Canadian history, which is abusing its privilege in elected office as a means to cull private information from political adversaries.

It is now crystal clear that an attack on organizations that respect the democratic process is this government’s next move. Take democratic labour unions, for example. The Conservatives and their right-wing buddies attacked these democratic institutions with the intent of trying to convince Canadians that these unions and their leaders are the problem. Nothing could be further from the truth and Canadians are just not buying it. As if frustrated, Conservatives are now upping the ante: Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre (Nepean-Carleton) has proposed legislation that would allow employees working under federal jurisdiction to opt out of joining a union and paying union dues. This anti-labour legislation, if passed, would make the federal government a right-to-work jurisdiction just like Kentucky, Georgia and Texas. Lower wages would follow for highly qualified workers who now earn a decent wage and a respectable living.

What is even more bizarre is that Poilievre is promoting this legislation while most residents in his riding work for the federal government and have benefitted greatly from democratic public service unions. Many of them are PIPSC members! And Poilievre, whose entire career experience is as a politician, seems to think that by taking away workers’ rights, the economy, his constituency and the country will be better off. I have to question if his lack of real- world experience is showing with the introduction of this bizarre ideological and mean-spirited bill. One thing is for sure: in 2013, PIPSC will not stand on the sidelines and watch further assaults on labour unions, as real damage is being done to programs and services that Canadians depend on in communities right across this country.

Harper Government’s Disdain For Science

October 15, 2012 11:33 am
Harper Government’s Disdain For Science

In recent years, science in Canada has come up against an increasing disdain for evidence-based decision making and a disappearing commitment to transparency. In brief, evidence-based policy-making in Canada is under attack and it is orchestrated by our own federal government.

In the absence of evidence, government policy is increasingly originating from ideological considerations. The abandonment of the long-form census in 2011, for example. No longer do Canadians have key social and economic data necessary to make well-informed public policy. There is sparse data upon which to base government policy decisions that involve the spending of millions (if not billions) of taxpayer dollars. The result is decision-making based on incomplete information that may lead to government waste, sometimes on a large scale.

This month, the ramifications of decision-making based on knee-jerk ideology as opposed to solid facts and figures hit home to the tune of almost $1.5 billion. On July 16, 2012, the Minister for Public Safety Vic Toews announced the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) would return $1.48 billion in funding to the Government of Canada. The additional number of offenders expected to result from the government’s new tough-on-crime legislation – including the Truth in Sentencing Act – failed to materialize as the Minister indicated. While projections pegged the inmate population at growing to almost 17,725 by June 2012, the actual figure was 14,965. As a result, CSC will return the funding originally allocated to support this increased offender population.

As worrying as the government’s spurious allocation of a billion and a half dollars on CSC expenditures may be, it is in the sciences where the government’s reliance on fiction over fact is most glaringly apparent. The government has made it official policy to gag scientists. Government scientists now have to be cleared by public affairs officials in Ottawa before they can speak to the media. Scientists have been so tightly gagged that media coverage of climate change issues has plummeted more than 80 per cent since 2007. (Compare this to the United States National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration, which adopted a scientific integrity policy in January 2012. The U.S. government policy permits American scientists to speak about their work to anyone at any time.)

Then there was Kyoto. In December 2011, Canada formally withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. In doing so, the Conservative Government abandoned the world’s only legally binding plan to tackle global warming and to save the planet.

This year, the federal government’s attack on science reached a new low. The government is now putting the very water Canadians drink and rely on at risk. In June 2012, the government announced the planned closure of the Experimental Lake Area (ELA) research station in northwestern Ontario that produces data critical to combating acid rain and phosphate pollution in lake water. The ELA is Canada’s only outdoor laboratory for scientists studying how to protect the country’s freshwater lakes. Without government funding, the research station will close in 2013. It was of importance not only to Canada. The ELA was the only facility in the world that allowed scientists to observe how entire ecosystems are affected by lake water pollution. Experiments at the facility included the dumping of acid, toxic metals and phosphorus to observe the effects on water and the surrounding environment. Defunding the ELA is a loss to the world and is a smear upon Canada’s reputation as a world leader in water conservation.

The funding cut to the ELA is one Canada’s scientific community can ill afford. By G7 standards, Canada’s investment in science was already low. Now it is perilously low. In 2006, Statistics Canada stated that Canada’s gross expenditure on research and development in science and technology was 1.9 per cent of gross national product (GDP).

On July 10, the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC) attended a rally on Parliament Hill. Thousands of scientists, academics and concerned citizens protested the cuts to science programs. While funding cuts at the forefront included the impending loss of Ontario’s ELA research station, other changes are also cause for alarm. Last month, Canada’s Fisheries Act – which has protected our fish stock for 35 years – was replaced with a new, looser regulatory regime. The new law creates defenses for polluters and significantly expands the scope for discretionary decisions by the Minister and staff of Fisheries and Oceans Canada as they make regulatory approvals. The changes will significantly undermine Canada’s ability to protect national fisheries now and in the future.

The cuts made by the Canadian government that protect core natural resources on which Canada’s economy is founded is of grave concern to PIPSC. In less than 12 months, the government of Canada continued to gag its own scientists, defunded a research facility of international importance and failed to ratify the world’s primary climate change agreement. In doing so, it has not only undermined Canada’s natural resources for future generations but smeared Canada’s international reputation.

Canadian Innovation and 21st Century Challenges

May 1, 2010 2:46 pm
Canadian Innovation and 21st Century Challenges

Like other countries, Canada faces profound challenges in the decades ahead. An aging population, the need to mitigate and adjust to climate change, the transition to a low greenhouse gas emissions economy and pressures from rising economic superpowers are issues we all confront. Science, technology and innovation will be crucial to ensuring that Canadians’ health, well-being and quality of life continue to improve in the midst of these challenges.

Renewed interest in innovation and the knowledge economy has increased over the last twenty years and governments have focused on investing in Canada’s universities and research institutions. The results have been remarkable. Canada now ranks near the top of the OECD in higher education research as a share of GDP.

However, despite the increased research funding, innovation by business enterprises continues to lag. According to Canada’s Science, Technology and Innovation Council, the Council of Canadian Academies’ Expert Panel on Business Innovation and others, business sector innovation in this country is falling short and R&D expenditures remain below average when compared to Canada’s advanced industrial trading partners. If this poor performance continues, experts warn, Canada’s productivity growth and ultimately living standards will be in jeopardy.

While manufacturing and primary industry will play a key role in boosting innovation and productivity growth, Canada’s growing service sector still has much to contribute – including public services. In the last year, the federal public service responded with professionalism and efficiency in preparing for and responding to the H1N1 pandemic, reacting to the crisis in Haiti, and planning and carrying off the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games. As the Minister of Finance has observed, Canada’s professionally-regulated financial system has been recognized worldwide as the key to Canada’s superior economic performance during the recent financial crisis and economic recession. More recently, the Prime Minister’s Advisory Committee on the Public Service congratulated the public service on the innovative methods used to plan and implement the government’s economic stimulus package “in a timely and efficient way.”

Canada’s performance over the past two years demonstrates that good governance is a fiscal asset and competitive advantage, and that the professional public service is an essential component of Canada’s success. But it is not yet viewed as a potential source of innovation and service sector productivity gains. To be sure, after years of budget cuts, today’s federal public service workforce is remarkably lean. The number of employees working in Canada’s core public administration has increased only slightly (less than 5 per cent) since 1983, well behind the growth of the Canadian population or economy and real spending on federal programs. Canada’s professional federal employees are doing far more than ever.

Yet the federal government’s approach has been to financially squeeze the public service with budget cuts, forcing employees to do more and more with fewer and fewer resources. Such austerity will not lead to greater innovation and efficiency, only demoralization and a failure to renew the public service, as a wave of retirements carry knowledge and the most experienced out the door. There is enormous potential for innovating in the way public services are designed and delivered in Canada – we need an approach that explores ways of delivering higher quality services more efficiently and at lower cost to Canadians.

More and more, the public service consists of knowledge workers: professionals who apply the fruits of years of specialized training and research in the service of Canadians. The thousands of public service professionals represented by The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada use their education, talent and expertise to provide a wide range of services that ensure the health and safety of all Canadians. For example, and this is to name just a few, there are meteorologists who monitor the weather and warn us of impending storms. Engineers ensure our roads and bridges are safe. Nurses provide care to Northern communities and veterans. Auditors recover millions in unpaid taxes from large corporations, and the list goes on.

These professionals understand their work processes better than anyone. They have to — in many cases, they design and implement these processes themselves. With years of experience serving Canadian businesses, families and individuals, they are uniquely positioned to identify and propose ways of meeting Canadians’ needs more efficiently and conveniently, with less cost. Public service professionals have sought to increase their involvement in workplace decision-making precisely because they have no shortage of ideas for conducting their work more efficiently, and delivering timely, high-quality services at a lower cost to Canadians.

Following the March budget, the Clerk of the Privy Council has signaled a renewed interest in examining work organization and the use of technology in the federal public service. We think this is an important step and one that needs the input of public service professionals to succeed. We look forward to putting public service professionals on the leading edge of Canadian innovation.

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