What can public servants expect from Canada’s new government?

By on 20/11/2015 | Updated on 13/12/2015
Ian Lee is an assistant professor with Sprott School of Business at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada

Canada’s new Liberal government has been careful to praise public servants, striking a much warmer note than its predecessor. But Ian Lee says it may still pursue some challenging reforms

On October 19, Canada’s Liberal party won the general election, ending ten years of Conservative rule. The support of public servants aided its victory – for the defeated Stephen Harper-led government had alienated many of them, having publicly criticised everyone from the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court to the public sector unions. In my view, the relationship between Harper’s government and the public sector unions was the worst ever seen in Canadian history. The largest union – the Public Service Alliance of Canada – even distributed buttons to its membership in 2014 with the slogan ‘Harper hates me’, with some members wearing theirs to work.

The extraordinarily bad relationship was due in part to the hostile tone and negative attitude expressed by key ministers in the Harper government towards the public service: some Cabinet ministers regularly referred to the “gold-plated pensions” of civil servants, while the former Conservative minister responsible for the public service, Tony Clement, spoke out over officials “not pulling their weight.”

These tensions were exacerbated by major reforms to the federal public service and the collective bargaining process. In a bid to bring public servants’ wages and benefits more into line with the private sector, the government increased public servants’ minimum retirement age from 55 to 65, and raised their share of both pension contributions and retiree health care premiums from 25% to 50%.

Finally, and most controversially, former Treasury Board president Clement announced that the government would modernise the sick leave system. Currently, if public servants are sick for more than 13 weeks, they are taken off the payroll and put onto long-term sick leave managed by a private insurance company; but those with good track records on sickness absence can ‘bank’ unused sick leave, deferring this shift to insurance cover. Clement pledged to abolish such deferrals, predicting that the reform would save $900m (US$675m). As the three largest public sector unions refused to negotiate sick leave, the government introduced and passed a bill granting it the unilateral right to adopt the new system.

Though the new system was never actually implemented, the anger amongst union leaders and the rank and file was so pronounced that during the election campaign the three unions campaigned in support of opposition candidates who promised to respect the public services. Perhaps that campaign tipped the odds; in any event, on 4 November the new Liberal cabinet was sworn into office – including the new Treasury Board president, Scott Brison.

One of the first things Brison did was to issue a reassurance to public servants in a CBCOttawa radio interview: “What I’m not going to do is what my predecessors under the previous government did, and that is use issues like [sick leave] as political footballs and negotiate through the media. We will negotiate respectfully as part of a collective bargaining process”.

However, to signal that the new Liberal government is not going to accept the unions’ position on all major issues, Brison added that “when we disagree, we will do so without being disagreeable”. Moreover, Brison pointedly refused to state the new government’s position concerning sick leave reform, suggesting merely that there would be reform.

So what can public servants expect from their new boss? Brison is an experienced politician who served in the previous Liberal government of Paul Martin from 2004 to 2006. He’s a long-standing MP for a rural riding (an electoral constituency) in the Maritimes, having represented Kings-Hants, Nova Scotia, in the House of Parliament since the late 1990s. Nova Scotia, where he was born, historically has higher unemployment and lower household incomes than the national average.

So Brison understands that, as unpopular as these Conservative government policies are with public servants, they are widely supported in many parts of the country – where two thirds of Canadians have no employer pension plan at all, and lack job security. The average wage gap between the federal service and the rest of Canada has increased significantly, with public servants enjoying a median family income of $96,000 (US$72,039) compared to $76,000 (US$57,030) for the rest of the population.

Meanwhile, the economy is growing at a much slower rate, which means lower government taxation revenues; earlier this week, Canada’s Parliamentary Budget Office slashed its 2015 growth forecast in half and predicted deficits in each of the next five years. This forecast is based on the Harper government’s last budget, and doesn’t take into account Trudeau’s expensive election promise to run a $10bn (US$7.5bn) deficit to fund economic stimulus programmes. Thus the Liberals have very little economic room to manoeuver.

So if they must choose – and I think they must – between looking after the 300,000 federal public servants, and keeping their promises to millions of voters across Canada, I believe they will prioritise the latter. To be fair to the Liberals, they never promised specifically to reverse any of the Harper decisions. But they repeatedly said that they would treat public servants with respect. It looks likely that, even after Harper’s departure, public servants will still experience Harperism – albeit with a much, much nicer tone.

Ian Lee is an assistant professor with Sprott School of Business at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada

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  1. Steve Hopwood says:

    HI there. Just a note to say that the minimum retirement was raised from 55 to 60 for those who have at least 30 years of service. If one doesn’t have 30 years of service the there is financial penalty until one reaches 65. Lastly, the pension changes just mentioned were only applied to new hires beginning in 2013 and not to everyone.

    On another note, the biggest sticking point for the sick leave proposal was the 10 day unpaid waiting that followed the miserly 5 days of sick leave per year (no accumulation) before the short term disability (at 70% of salary) kicked in.

  2. Anonymous says:

    This is why everyone hates public servants: The average wage gap between the federal service and the rest of Canada has increased significantly, with public servants enjoying a median family income of $96,000 (US$72,039) compared to $76,000 (US$57,030) for the rest of the population. THAT BEING SAID, you send a message that now people will say we all make that amount in the Federal Government as people globalise. Its not easy getting into the government and its not as easy as you might think to get a raise/promotion. I have been working for the Federal Government of Canada since 2008. I worked about 5 years with casual contract; no sick leave, no vacation, its a 90 day contract that can only be worked once in a department, etc. This made my life extremely hard as sometimes I couldnt find a contract that easily in another department to maintain my financial stability. At times, I wasnt paid for almost 3 months since the pay centre could not keep up with all new employees. Then it was another 2 years of Term employment and then finally my permanency. Its not as peachy for everyone as you all make it sound like. And as for the salary, most employees I work with are bellow the the rest of the population’s $76000 average. Like me for example, Im below $60000. I thank god everyday for having this job but I also can say that it was a battle. My family and I had lots of financial problem through all this time. This is for people to see how sometimes people judge too fast before they know the situation and they as usual throw everyone under the same bus. I worked 3 jobs for 7 years (about 80 hours/week) before I landed this job without taking a sick day or vacation. So yes, hard work pays off!

  3. Peter in Ottawa says:

    Just to note, Mr Lee plays did not adequately portray the facts in this article.

    The current sick leave system has a zero balance on the books. Since there is no cash value and employees receive no stipend if not used, there is no cost to the government. The PBO validated this just last year.

    Mr Lee also relies heavily on CFIB and Fraser Institute figures, which have largely been debunked. The figures from which he draws compare government employees from all job classifications and employment types to the general population. This is a false comparison. This comparison ignores the fact that professionals in the Public Service are paid less when compared to their counterparts in similar sized industries. For example, Senior Lawyers (not partners) in large law firms (well over 1000 staff) are paid 30% to 50% more than Public Sector counterparts, depending on practice. Partners vs government Legal executives are even more at a disadvantage.

    The same goes for Economists, Engineers and Computer specialists for more examples. These numbers range from 15% to 30%.

    As for the increase of the retirement age, there are 2 tiers of Government employees now. Those who were employees prior to 2013 and those after. It is only those who’ve entered the government after said time whose benefits are now at age 65.

    I suspect that the new government will be more balanced and look at both the needs of the Canadian people and services they are provided by those public servants.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Some of these assertions are ridiculous and completely over-generalised. How about breaking these very misleading household income numbers down a little further so that comparable skill and educational levels are compared between the public service and the private sector? I can pretty much guarantee that a very different picture will emerge. Some of this stuff reads as badly as the sick leave usage estimates that the previous government cooked up to turn opinion against public servants. I would expect something much more factual and unbiased from an assistant professor. The mistakes cited about the retirement clauses have already been well rebuked.

  5. Johanne says:

    It’s interesting to note that Mr. Lee quotes Tony Clement’s projected savings of $900m from sick leave reform without mentioning that that figure was seriously challenged by the Parliamentary Budget Officer, not only by the public service unions, within months of Mr. Clement’s announcement. Is it too much to expect academics to be rigorous and non-partisan when expressing their views in a public forum? And how does the median family income and benefits (pension and otherwise) of university personnel compare to that of the rest of the population?

  6. Michael Sharon says:

    Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Brison have repeatedly pledged a return to “fact based” decision making. One can only hope that the Liberal Government’s facts are more thoroughly researched than those articulated by Mr. Lee, since most of these have been challenged or outright refuted.

  7. Mat says:

    I’m confused. When my parents applied to their positions they were advertised to the public. Each job has it’s benefits and drawbacks. And since more and more of the PS require a university degree and tend to marry likewise, is there a problem with earning a higher wage than fishing people on the east coast?

  8. John says:

    It’s time private sectors show more respect and give better working conditions to their employees instead of cutting the Public Service benefits to “match” them. The government have to force private Co’s to increase pay and benefits for their employees instead of making it easier for them to enslave and take advantage of desperate temporary foreign workers (TFW’s) while not contributing to our dying Canadian economy.

    I think it’s easy to understand Mr. Clement lied about the average days of sick days taken when he reported a larger number of yearly sick leave days were taken by Public Servants than were actually granted yearly to Public Servants (PS) (e.g. Mr. Clement said PS employees take 18 or 19 days of sick years of leave annually when they actually are only given 15). Not bad for someone who charged Candadian taxpayers 50 000 000$ (yes, fifty million$) on a few eye-candy gazebos in one day for the Toronto G20.

    Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think Liberals or NDP are any better in the end (they’re just slightly less evil), but Mr. Clement and many other politicians have to mention his/their own pure gold filled pension (the full 6 figure salary + benefits and many other advantages for life they get for only 6 years of “service”) before criticizing the much smaller pensions of PS worker’s pensions.

    His reported 900 million$ savings were also awfully exaggerated… Are you surprised!? As to get to that number of savings, each an every PS employee would need to claim each and every day of sick leave and other special leaves yearly to get to that number of savings… Which doesn’t happen and was only used to inflate the amount of savings?
    This is something Mr. Lee fails to mention in his article.
    Did you know Mr. Harper and his government participated in a bail out for banks for 114 Billion (yes with a “B”) during the recession in October, 2008 and July, 2010. And then these guys talk about saving by cutting on health, education and other birth rights and necessities.

    Banks are the richest entities on Earth and make money out of thin air (research: Fractional Reserve Banking and Central Banking System; which is the system we are imposed to follow). Banks don’t need to be bailed out. Corrupt spending just needs to stop and tax money spent on services that actually come back to the people. And journalists, if they are anything close to that title need to notify the people *who they work* for about it.

    This article fails to mention essential facts relating to its subject, which shows apparent bias.

    When/if we get a Government, media and especially *people* that aren’t afraid to expose corruption and work for the people instead; Private and Public sectors, the people and even other countries will be happy and in harmony.

  9. Trebor says:

    I have to say something about the ridiculous use of a “Median” average family income. How unfair to consider what a persons value is. I don’t think any person working for the government or private sector was hired based on their spouse contributing to their qualifications or their interview or their contributions in the workforce. You chose that number because it is a blatant attempt so show a higher salary of double income for the benefit of your article. The obvious reaction would be to see this as outlandish salaries because you don’t consider the average salary of federal or provincial public service workers on its own is a much lower average. another attempt to stigmatize federal public service workers. Thanks for nothing! take some responsibility for writing with integrity nest time. Shame

  10. 35 Year Public Servan says:

    Where can I buy an “I hate Trudeau” button to wear to the office?

  11. Public service truth says:

    If Mr. Lee wants to compare with others, let’s look at his own university. Any new staff member is given 18 sick days per year. After a year they are given a bank of 130 days of sick leave. Yes, 130. If they take any leave, the bank is fully restored after they return for one day.
    As a member of the teaching staff, his personal conditions are even better. He gets a sick leave bank of 180 days.
    Yes, 180 days.
    This is not the first time that Lee has railed against the sick leave conditions in the public service.
    To help us understand his motives, it might be beneficial to start by disclosing that he used to be a speechwriter for the Progressive Conservative party.
    He bends the truth until it fits his point.
    Given that he works for a publicly funded institution (Carleton University), and cares so much for the taxpayer, he should be just as concerned about their own situation and how his own perks affect tuition and taxes in this country.

  12. Janice says:

    I am not sure if they only went by what the EX’s earn as a an annual income. I am full time and my annual income is $49.000.

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