Alberta Politics
Calgary’s Eighth Avenue Mall, emblematic of an Alberta in which the population keeps growing as the number of civil servants per capita falls (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Where’s the crisis austerity is supposed to fix? Not necessarily in the numbers the government’s consultant crunched

Posted on September 18, 2019, 1:07 am
6 mins

In the decade between 2008 and last year, the number of civil servants in Alberta on a per capita basis fell by 5 per cent.

In the same period, Alberta’s population grew by almost 20 per cent.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

I know, I know, that isn’t what your heard. You certainly didn’t read it in a government press release!

That’s hardly surprising, since it isn’t at all the impression the United Conservative Party Government of Premier Jason Kenney wants you to get while it works hard with the help its “Blue Ribbon Panel,” which includes a couple of Fraser Institute elves, to gin up a fiscal crisis that only bigly austerity can fix.

But we know these key factoids about the relative shrinkage of the civil service and the growth in the population from the statistics compiled by KPMG LLP for the MacKinnon Report – named for Janice MacKinnon, the Fraser Institute associate and former Saskatchewan finance minister who chaired the committee charged with coming up with excuses for ways to find the $4.5 billion the government requires just to cut its billionaire friends’ taxes.

The population growth calculation is on page 16 of the 151-page number-crunching effort for the panel. The estimate of civil service shrinkage is on page 22.

“On a per capita basis … Alberta’s core government employment decreased by 5 per cent over the past 10 years or 0.5 per cent (compounded annually),” the KPMG analysis says. “All other comparator provinces showed increases in their core government employment over the same period.”

“Blue-Ribbon” Panel Chair Janice MacKinnon (Photo: Government of Alberta).

So why is reducing civil service jobs and compensation part of the government’s plan for fixing Alberta’s supposed “spending problem” again? You tell me.

The UCP never misses an opportunity to blame the NDP government of former premier Rachel Notley for the fiscal state of the province, but it never mentions that while on a per capita basis Alberta’s civil service compensation increased by 27 per cent over the 10-year period, it stopped growing in 2015, the year the NDP was elected.

That’s another little factoid you won’t read in a government press release because, if you did, you’d have to blame Conservatives. If you’re looking, though, it’s on page 23.

And on page 24, KPMG illustrates with a nice bright green line how, while overall expenses on compensation by the Government of Alberta and most of its related entities has naturally increased as Alberta’s population grew, per capita spending in the same area has been falling since the NDP came to power.

And the NDP managed to achieve this without huge service cuts that hurt ordinary Albertans, not to mention costing them more use user fees for unaccountable privatized services!

Well, that’s all water under the bridge now, of course. The NDP isn’t the government of Alberta any more. They’ve been fired, as the UCP keeps reminding us, so now things can get back to where God and the Fraser Institute intended them to be: privatized, unregulated, expensive and unavailable.

“Blue-Ribbon” Panel member and University of Calgary economist Bev Dahlby (Photo: Government of Alberta).

I mention the foreign-financed Vancouver-based market-fundamentalist think tank, with which both Dr. MacKinnon (a PhD historian) and University of Calgary economist Bev Dahlby are associated, because this is a classic example of a typical Fraser Institute rhetorical technique.

To wit: Basing conclusions that support the organization’s ideological point of view on masses of quite accurate statistics that, examined honestly, say no such thing.

Sometimes my progressive friends are unhappy when I say the Fraser Institute’s numbers are usually accurate. Well, they most often are. They get them from Statistics Canada, more often than not, and while you can’t necessarily trust anything the Fraser Institute or the MacKinnon Panel say, you can trust Statscan.

What you can’t trust is the things Fraser Institute apparatchiks say those numbers mean. That’s where the Fraser Institute does its spinning: in its press releases, which it publishes by the score.

Now, you may say I’ve just cherry picked (another favourite Fraser Institute technique) four pages from a longer report. That would be true. I confess I haven’t yet read the entire thing.

But I’m pretty confident that if any honest researcher wants to pull on this thread, Dr. MacKinnon’s metaphorical sweater will unravel.

I would encourage any group in Alberta society the Kenney Government plans to attack to examine the facts in the KPMG report from which the MacKinnon Report’s been spun. They may well find a different story from the one in the press release.

NOTE: Thanks to my colleague Judith Grossman, a professional researcher, for fact checking this post. DJC

9 Comments to: Where’s the crisis austerity is supposed to fix? Not necessarily in the numbers the government’s consultant crunched

  1. September 18th, 2019

    How is it the Ford administration has been kept on a short leash during the federal election campaign while Kenney’s clowns run rampant?

    Reply
    • David Climenhaga

      September 18th, 2019

      I think the answer is that Ontarians, residents of a vote rich region, are actually paying attention to what Mr. Ford is doing because he’s doing it to them. Mr. Kenney, meanwhile, is notoriously waiting to do the real damage until after the federal election has passed. DJC

      Reply
  2. Bill Malcolm

    September 18th, 2019

    The Fraser Institute = Just your local friendly neobliberal minions at work, satisfying the directives of wealthy elites who like to make things go their way. That’s why they fund propaganda outlets like the Fraser “Institute” filled with so-so “academics” who have no compunction in slanting Stats Can data in return for a living, while exhibiting a sickening tendency towards pomposity in interviews. A desecration of the word institute.

    Austerity – cut taxes for the rich thus cutting provincial revenues – oops, gee, now there’s nothing left for the populace or provincincial employees. So sorry! But we have our marching orders from the wealthy, and tax cuts are our first priority.

    Utter dope: Ex-Prime Minister Cameron of the UK, Austerity Man from 2010 until he shuffled off the stage following the Brexit vote. This vital and upstanding man has now just said “We should have started austerity much sooner, then we wouldn’t have needed a Brexit vote”. No, everyone would be living on the streets and licking old fish ‘n chip wrappings from rubbish bins for calorific sustenance. It’s heading that way as it is.

    Apparently with rocks for brains and the continual evolving proof that trickle-down theory for making the rich richer is simply the #1 Bullsh!t failure of Conservatives everywhere these past 40 years, Cameron doubles down on a failing policy. Just like Kenney is and will continue to do while spewing nonsense. Of course, the Brits got even worse than Cameron; they put in Boris as PM, a shambling hulk and serial perpetual liar of a prep-school boy prankster. The textbook analysis of such a person is: sociopath. The Luxembourg PM told him off yesterday in no uncertain terms about the lack of any written plans for a new Brexit deal, mocked him outright in fact. Now the Brits feel slighted – as well they should. The idiots deserve it. Some home truths were rammed down their Conservative throats and Boris essentially asked for it. He probably cannot even dictate a letter or concentrate for more than five minutes before he becomes fidgety. He’s just in love with himself. Kenney also looks like he can go into rant mode in an instant if you push the right buttons. People walking on thin ice tend to not want to be reminded of the fact.

    Everywhere you look, dumb Conservatives repeat the same old privatization, lower taxes for the rich, trickle down theory, austerity mantra, and it’s not people friendly. It’s horse manure designed to make you forget your pocketbook is being filched to make the rich richer. Albertans seem peculiarly susceptible to believing this right wing nonsense actually makes sense. You need to spend MORE money on public education – charter schools just indoctrinate youngster to believing the current Conservative take on society – they’re junior Fraser Institutes. Charter schools are like British prep schools, and that begot Brits utter duds like Boris, people who innately believe they’re brainy but in fact are as dumb as a rock, and prone to thinking 5 words or less slogans are carefully considered policy.

    A majority of Albertans seem to be perfectly happy living somewhere where the newspapers only cover one side of the argument, where they swallow UCP rhetoric like the finest nectar, and regard shooting themselves in the foot as the pinnacle of sports – indeed a highly enjoyable practice. Such are the penalties of living in the middle of nowhere in the vast Canadian Prayer-rie. Outside knowledge has a hard time getting in, like those rats of yore.

    Reply
  3. Geoffrey Pounder

    September 18th, 2019

    “the relative shrinkage of the civil service”: “In the decade between 2008 and last year, the number of civil servants in Alberta on a per capita basis fell by 5 per cent. In the same period, Alberta’s population grew by almost 20 per cent.”

    Relative shrinkage, not absolute. In other words, the civil service grew, though not as fast as population.
    Does the civil service need to grow at the same rate as population?
    I can understand that the number of doctors and people on the front lines need to grow with the segments of the population they serve. The number of doctors might even need to grow faster than the general population, as the population ages (more people in their retirement years).
    But the case for expanding the bureaucracy in line with population is less clear-cut. Not all of the civil service provide service to the public. There is no direct relationship between the number of bureaucrats and the number of people seeking services.
    Does AB Health really need all those bureaucrats? My experience with govt bureaucracy suggests that many bureaucrats play climb the ladder and musical chairs — attending conferences, workshops, and meetings — but do little essential work. Greater efficiencies may allow us to do more with less.
    *************************
    “while you can’t necessarily trust anything the Fraser Institute or the MacKinnon Panel say, you can trust Statscan”

    Not always. StatsCan’s (the federal govt’s) figures on oil & gas emissions are fictional. The oil & gas industry’s emissions are grossly under-reported. The federal govt is aware of this, since Environment Canada scientists have published key studies and are involved in ongoing research. Nevertheless, the govt has declined to revise its figures in light of actual measurements.

    Reply
    • Jerrymacgp

      September 20th, 2019

      Sir: well, now you’ve done it… you’ve bought the Jason Kenney line about “managers managing managers” hook, line & sinker. While I rarely agree with you, you’d been on a roll lately of posting comments I had no argument with, but this one? Wrong, wrong, wrong.

      So: in public services, like the private sector, there are the people that do the work — then there are the people who hire them, pay them, oversee their work, set and monitor performance standards, buy services, supplies, and materials they need to do their work, maintain the physical plant in which they work, and do all of those umpteen other tasks that don’t directly impact the service or product being delivered, but without which the workplace would very quickly grind to a halt. All of those people are lumped into that category of “administration & management”, and at least in the public sector, have been in the crosshairs of both conservatives and progressives for years, maybe decades.

      But, let me tell you, as a Registered Nurse with over a third of a century practicing in Alberta, these people are absolutely essential to ensuring Albertans get the health care they need when they need it. AHS, for example, with over 100,000 employees and affiliated physicians, has, according to CIHI, the lowest “administration & management” costs of any health care organization in Canada, and in fact, the pendulum may have swung too far. For much of its now 10-year history, bureaucratic inertia, decision-phobia and kicking far too many decisions way too high up the org chart, have been the order of the day in AHS, a situation that has only recently — I’d say in the past 3-4 years, at most — begun to improve. As a direct-care clinician, for instance, I have seen how AHS let far too much clinical policy languish unchanged from the legacy organizations from which it was formed, and it is only now working diligently on rectifying that.

      We don’t want highly qualified nurses, therapists, and technologists doing tasks better managed by an admin or management person. And in an organization of over 100,000 people, you’re gonna need some “administration & management”.

      Reply
  4. Dave

    September 18th, 2019

    Mr. Kenney seems like a driver in a rush to get to some destination not thinking about the consequences of his actions and behavior. In his case the destination is not physical, it is ideological. Unfortunately, at this time his destination is still even somewhat hidden from us, as he hasn’t yet clearly indicated what he plans to do with government spending, although the clues seem ominous.

    I think those that follow politics closely are not surprised by Mr. Kenney’s likely affinity for austerity as the cure for all that ails. However, I think the broader electorate, those that do not follow things so closely may be surprised. In his effort to get elected, Mr. Kenney seriously downplayed government spending cuts, whenever the issue came up and he mostly avoided the topic as much as possible.

    I suppose this has created a credibility issue which Mr. Kenney may actually be more aware of than most political commentators. Put simply, voters do not like surprises and do not react well when politicians do things differently from what they indicated in their campaign. Hence, the UCP has had to engage in a lot of creative spin to justify spending cuts and austerity. One of their major points, that they were left with a bigger financial mess than expected, does not jive very well with the facts, as the deficit figures that came out after the election inconveniently showed it quite a bit lower than expected. None the less, as true believers, or ideologues, they are not about to let the facts get in the way of their arguments and their determination to get to what they consider the right destination is unchanged.

    Mr. Kenney already welched on one significant pledge right at the start of his time as leader – the grassroots guarantee and that was done in a very clumsy way. Now that was mainly to party members and did not impact most Albertans, their financial well being or the level of government services to them, so the damage was not too great. However, changing positions on government spending would need to be handled more deftly. I suspect this is a big reason for the blue ribbon panel as Mr. Kenney calls it, or as it may be better described as, the carefully selected panel of supposed experts needed to support the governments predetermined conclusions. Unfortunately that does not roll off the tongue.

    I suspect Mr. Kenney will use the panel as a justification and a cover for bigger cuts and more austerity than he let on about during the campaign. I suspect it may be successful in somewhat protecting his credibility on this issue with voters who supported him, but were not as enthusiastic about cuts or austerity. However as the saying goes, the buck stops here, so it will be Mr. Kenney, not the blue ribbon carefully selected panel of supposed experts, who will still ultimately have to take responsibility for the impact of the cuts.

    Reply
  5. Bob Raynard

    September 18th, 2019

    Well put, David.

    I remember seeing an example of what you described. The Fraser Institute correctly reported that Alberta’s compensation to public sector employees had increased by 25% during the NDP’s tenure. The mouth breathers, of course, saw that as the NDP giving civil servants a 25% raise, when in actual fact they had hired 25% more workers, which was comparable to the increase in the population.

    I really do enjoy the challenge of reading news reports for BS. A recent column of Ric Bell’s reported that some large number of private sector employees had lost their jobs since 2015. In his next sentence, Mr. Bell, with real outrage, then reported that in the same period the percentage of public sector vs private sector workers had increased. Duh! When one number goes down, and the other stays the same, what does he expect?

    Reply
    • Jerrymacgp

      September 21st, 2019

      Re Ric Bell: dare I say it? “Math is hard” … lol.

      Reply
  6. pogo

    September 18th, 2019

    Have a gander at where they get some of their per/cap income stats from and from when. My gob? She’d be smacked, if all my prejudices when it comes to jumped up Lamprey’s like Kenney and the Nixons weren’t repetitively proven to be true!

    Reply

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