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March 20, 1998 Halifax Herald

Reforms priced public service out of the job market

Prime Ministerial bad decisions have left behind a wealth of financial and social problems for future generations of taxpayers to contend with. It may be revealed, with the passage of time, that Pierre Trudeau holds the championship for making them. Under his socialist administration, the era of big government, deficits and debt came to full bloom.

In the process of fixing what didn't need to be fixed, Trudeau's government dabbled heavily in social engineering - saddling the country with many expensive social programs. However, from my point of view, the worst of all his legacies is the mess which has resulted from his federal public service reforms.

To assist with realizing his envisioned public service reforms, Trudeau relied heavily upon the expertise he acquired from a very short stint of employment in it. From that brief experience, he came up with all the answers. Of course, as was the norm with him, he only envisioned the goal he wanted to reach and not the pitfalls that might occur along the way.

Letís review the federal public service as it existed when Trudeau took over the reins of power from Prime Minister Lester Pearson. The service was considered one of the best in the world. Its employees had job security, good morale, good pensions. There was a shortcoming: pay structure and job classifications needed up-ward revision.

It was in these two areas that Trudeau's troops charged in to make changes. His declaration - that to attract better qualified people, government pay rates and job classifications levels had to be made comparable to those of private enterprise - was their licence. Trudeau didn't foresee that his troops would adopt as their goal the job classification and pay-scale standards of the highest levels of private enterprise. This ignorance, or oversight, eventually drove up the cost of the federal public service to where it has become virtually unsustainable.

Unfortunately, the Trudeau disease was not contained to the federal public service; it eventually spread to provincial and municipal levels. The result, and a big contributor to high unemployment rolls, was the lay off of hundreds of thousands of workers by the three levels of government. This result strongly supports a claim that foresight wasn't involved in the exercise.

I had a front-row seat to the implementation of this fiasco. From 1971 to 1986 I was an employee of the Department of Indian Affairs. What I saw from that seat would blow the mind of the most daring of manipulators. Pay scales and upward job classifications took off as if they were propelled by the best rockets produced by NASA scientists.

What benefits did the Canadian taxpayer reap from these reforms? Not many! Today, it may be easier to contact the president of the United states than to contact a bureaucrat. Machines answer calls and inform you that the party you seek is not available.

Nor have public-service employees realized a positive from the exercise. Morale is very low. They no longer have any job security - always wondering if they will be next on the lay off hit-list. Plus, they see their employers admitting, by contracting out jobs to low paying private firms, that governments can't afford what they created.

What does a laid-off public servant do for a job? As one, I can say that private firms do not fall all over themselves to hire them. So, when you are told by government that they have to pay their top employees top wages in order to keep them, take it with a grain of salt. Most government employees are tainted with a mostly not deserved public perception that they are lazy incompetents.

The senior bureaucrat must take a fair share of the blame for the present state of affairs. Trudeau opened the doors for the sin of greed to come to the forefront and with a vengeance, it came. Some of the raises we received during my 15 years with the service really blew my mind. If memory serves correctly, the high for one year was 17 percent! During this era, inflation increased to double-digit; public-service reforms were a major force behind it.

Predictably, in spite of Trudeau's prediction to the contrary, a grand array of "better" qualified public servants did not materialize. Most of the same old managers were still in the saddle, but were drawing top wages.

Many employees, such as myself, were appalled by the whole fiasco. Common sense told us that the unimpeded empire building by senior bureaucrats, and the associated scandalous pay hikes they engineered, would eventually result in a vast loss of jobs.

What most public servants wanted in pre-Trudeau days was a decent wage, not top flight. Most were willing to trade off high wages for job security. Today, because of Trudeau, the entire country faces a situation where it can't afford its public servants. In the meantime, we're under-doctored, under-policed, under-nursed, etc. Taxes are at ruinous levels; there is no salvation there. The situation grows worse. Do we have a leader who can put it all together again? If there is, he/she will need charisma, wisdom and the help of God.

Daniel N. Paul

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