Alberta Politics
Alberta nurses, sick of being the victims of government austerity policies, on strike illegally in 1988 (Photo: United Nurses of Alberta).

Budget Day reminder: Facts about Alberta public employees don’t support propaganda saying they’re too numerous or paid too much

Posted on October 24, 2019, 1:32 am
7 mins

Alberta’s a high-wage province! Who knew?

Maybe the question ought to be … Who didn’t?

University of Lethbridge economics professor Richard E. Mueller (Photo: Parkland Institute).

At any rate, the Kenney Government’s “blue-ribbon” panel on Alberta’s finances, chaired by former Saskatchewan finance minister Janice MacKinnon and instructed not even to look at the revenue side of the province’s so-called public spending problem, ignored that inconvenient question.

Presumably that wasn’t because they didn’t know the answer, but because the answer didn’t support the ideologically driven policy Dr. MacKinnon’s little band of reliable neoliberals had been recruited to deliver. To wit: cut public services and make the public sector an uncongenial place to work, the better to advance Premier Jason Kenney’s privatization agenda.

But there was also an element in the MacKinnon Panel’s terms of reference, it could be argued, that was intended to exact revenge on Alberta’s public employees for having the temerity to have steady employment while the Alberta oilpatch was cutting its workforce and thereby causing real pain in the provincial economy.

So with the first United Conservative Party budget scheduled to be tabled later today, yesterday’s report of the Edmonton-based Parkland Institute on the Alberta public sector workforce and what it is paid is timely.

The report challenges the Kenney Government’s relentlessly repeated propaganda that the size and compensation levels of Alberta’s public service are too high, and therefore must be addressed through painful cuts of both public sector jobs and pay. This has been said so often, and challenged so little by mainstream media, that it’s drifted into the realm of conventional wisdom.

Public policy consultant Hugh Mackenzie (Photo: Centre for Civic Governance).

But as the Parkland report by University of Lethbridge economics professor Richard E. Mueller shows, it ain’t necessarily so.

Using two complementary data sets and a longer, inflation-corrected time frame to provide a more accurate picture of Alberta’s public sector than was offered in the slapdash MacKinnon Report, Dr. Mueller concluded that “Alberta does not stand out in any way relative to the other three large provinces, both in terms of the size of its public sector size and its compensation.”

“Alberta has actually tended to have a smaller public sector compared to other jurisdictions,” he said — at least if you don’t use misleading measures. “Similarly, the compensation levels of Alberta’s public employees do not stand out when compared to other provinces. In fact, Alberta’s public sector employees tend to earn relatively less than their counterparts in other jurisdictions, especially when the fact that Alberta is a high-wage province is considered.”

“Contrary to the narrative that Albertans have heard over and over again in the lead-up to tomorrow’s budget, Alberta’s public sector compensation levels are at best average when compared to other jurisdictions,” he stated.

“Compared to the roughly 15-per-cent wage advantage Albertans enjoy relative to workers in the rest of Canada, if anything, public sector workers in the province find themselves at a wage disadvantage, so any reductions are likely to have unintended consequences,” Dr. Mueller concluded.

Well, it’s nice to know some facts when your government is about to embark on a course of action that not only will do no good, but may cause considerable harm.

Alberta “blue ribbon” panel chair Janice MacKinnon (Photo: CBC).

Indeed, another report by Toronto-based economic consultant Hugh Mackenzie released yesterday argues that if the Kenney Government follows the MacKinnon Report’s recommendations, the result will most likely turn out to be a cumulative negative impact on the provincial GDP of 4.8 per cent and a loss of well over 100,000 jobs, about half of them in the private sector.

Unlike previous downturns such as the pain caused by the decline in world oil prices, Mr. Mackenzie argued, “the hardship caused by this government’s ill-considered deficit elimination strategy will be entirely self-inflicted.”

Unfortunately, since the Mackenzie report on potential impacts of the MacKinnon report was commissioned by the Alberta Federation of Labour, the UCP’s ideological blinkers will prevent the government from giving any credence to its findings. So I guess we’ll just have to wait for the fallout to say I told you so.

Of course, even without the prospect of a self-inflicted recession, squeezing nurses, teachers, physicians, health care support workers, and civil servants — many of whom kept their families afloat while the fossil fuel industry used low oil prices to justify slashing its workforce — doesn’t make much sense.

The UCP’s logic nevertheless appears to be pretty clear: The previous NDP government protected public services when the oilpatch went into the dumpster; NDP policies have no democratic legitimacy because only Conservatives are allowed to rule in Alberta, by divine right; ergo, any public employee is an ally of the NDP and must be punished.

The instrument of that punishment will be UCP attacks on the public sector, some of which will be contained in today’s provincial budget.

In a short narrative-setting television address yesterday evening, Premier Kenney said program spending would be cut by 2.8 per cent but claimed health and education spending will not be reduced — an effective reduction if you include population growth and inflation in your calculation. In addition, look for much higher cuts in areas that don’t matter to the government, however.

Still, if you’re not going to raise revenues, the millions required for inquiries, snitch lines, war rooms and constitutional jiggery-pokery have to come from somewhere.

The civil service will shrink by about 10 per cent, the premier said.

12 Comments to: Budget Day reminder: Facts about Alberta public employees don’t support propaganda saying they’re too numerous or paid too much

  1. Jim

    October 24th, 2019

    The trade off of being a public sector worker in terms of the lessor wage is the perceived stability and hopefully the pension at the end of it all. A beef I have is when the taxpayer is on the hook for pension obligations, such as MP pensions, public pensions are largely in good shape in Alberta. The benefits package was pretty good at one time that seems to have gone away. But they must be punished and blamed for those darn oil prices, well natural gas if you really look at the numbers.

    Kenney unfortunately suffers from never having worked in the real world and doesn’t understand how business and the economy works. You can’t expect to sell a product forever without adapting and enhancing it. When a competitor comes along with something better and cheaper you need to change or you go out of business. You certainly don’t double down and produce more of the product no one wants. The bulk of our oil, tar, just isn’t that good. Right now the Alberta economy is barely hanging on and a lot of those civil servants he wants to fire are spending money. Adding uncertainty to their employment will decrease their confidence putting not just large purchases, car or house, off but even things like going out for dinner. Albertans never seem to learn remember the huge deficit Klein ran up in terms of infrastructure when he “balanced” the books?
    You are right, however, we are going to have to pay those Calgary lawyers somehow. Might be nice to have some of that carbon tax revenue that Kenney so graciously handed to his buddy Justin in Ottawa to handle for us right about now.

  2. Dave

    October 24th, 2019

    I am not surprised that our public service is not as well paid as Kenney likes to claim. Our current Premier likes to pander to preconceptions and prejudices when it helps him politically, with little regard for the facts or the truth. Our diminished mainstream media also genetally seems to have little ability or inclination to question this UCP message, so I think he may again get away with this.

    Also Albertans in the private sector, particularly the energy sector where many jobs were higher paying, have had a rough few years and perceive that government employees have largely been shelered from the economic storm so far. As the saying goes misery loves company, so they will probably support provincial cuts, at least initially.

    Where the real political battles will come is in the impact Kenney’s cuts will have on the level and quality of government services and debate about the financial choices Kenney makes. Obviously, if the quality of health care education or other sevices suffers noticeably, Albertans will not be happy. Also, if Kenney is seen as being preoccupied with potential personal or hobby horse issues, like being off campaigning ioutside of Alberta, or focusing on personal political grudges and not paying full attention to managing Alberta’s financial situation, that could hurt him. Lastly, people may scrutinize all his financial choices more carefully now. It may now become harder giving corporate tax cuts to profitable companies laying off people, while people on AISH get nothing and have to deal with the increasing cost of living all on their own.

    Doug Ford probably also thought he could get by portraying his spending cuts as modest and things have not gone as he hoped. Like Kenney he was also not very upfront about spending cuts in his election campaign. Some Alberts voters may feel they were misled. If so, Kenney’s credibility and popularity could also sharply fall.

  3. Athabascan

    October 24th, 2019

    Imagine if all the public sector workers in Alberta had voted for Notley, or anyone but Kenney. Imagine if all the nurses, professors, and public school teachers had voted for Notley.

    • Murphy

      October 24th, 2019

      One did not have to venture far to encounter folks literally describing Notley as “Red” and the centre-right NDP as “communist”. The neoliberals certainly got what they paid for when they bought the media and academia.

    • tom in ontario

      October 24th, 2019

      Why should the groups you cite be any smarter than other folks who routinely vote against their own interests? Judging by our Ford government, we’re good at it.

      • Murphy

        October 24th, 2019

        “This episode explains how politicians on the left, in both Britain and America, turned to the techniques developed by business to read and fulfil the inner desires of the self.

        Both New Labour, under Tony Blair, and the Democrats, led by Bill Clinton, used the focus group, which had been invented by psychoanalysts, in order to regain power. They set out to mould their policies to people’s inner desires and feelings, just as capitalism had learnt to do with products.

        Out of this grew a new culture of public relations and marketing in politics, business and journalism. One of its stars in Britain was Matthew Freud who followed in the footsteps of his relation, Edward Bernays, the inventor of public relations in the 1920s.

        The politicians believed they were creating a new and better form of democracy, one that truly responded to the inner feelings of individual. But what they didn’t realise was that the aim of those who had originally created these techniques had not been to liberate the people but to develop a new way of controlling them.”

  4. Just Me

    October 24th, 2019

    I was greatly amused that during Kenney’s address to the province in regard to the upcoming budget, he spoke of Justin Trudeau’s “global recession”. Hmmmm…who’s living in whose head now?

    If Justin Trudeau is engineering a global recession, it will only hit Alberta, which not only makes Trudeau the most talented policy-driver ever, it seems he has powers on the level of Thanos. Pretty amazing stuff that Kenney is churning out, proving that he can’t wait to get out of Alberta before the shite hits the fan.

    So…since we all know that austerity breeds a vicious circle – cuts, down turn, more cuts, more down turn, and still more cuts – Kenney knows that his actions will cause a made in Alberta recession that he will not be able to blame on Trudeau. I can hear the collection facepalm slaps of hundreds of thousands of Albertans right now the moment they realize they were had by an oily angry midget.

    But they will never catch on, of course. Albertans are the stupidest people alive, and the UCP knows this.

    • Murphy

      October 24th, 2019

      I remember watching a program on CTV or CBC about christian homophobia in Alberta. They were filming around Drayton Valley, and the reporter basically offered that fact as a disclaimer. Essentially it’s to be expected that rural Albertans shouldn’t be assessed by the same criteria as normal Canadians. I spent over a decade working in oil and gas, staying in the little towns. There wasn’t much to differentiate the average yokel who had the benefit of modern telecommunications and education from run-away anabaptists. My mother came from the far reaches of the Ottawa Valley, an area whose constituents elected Cheryl Gallant, a giant who has held her own with the very best of Alberta reactionary dunces. She could go toe-to-toe with a Stockwell Day or Michelle Rempel or Myron Thompson any day, and her constituents would be as likely as any in Alberta to attribute reduced rainfall to communism and/or bilingualism/homosexuality. As much as we punch above our weight here, there’s plenty of ignorant and stupid to go around in Canada.

      • Jerrymacgp

        October 25th, 2019

        “Runaway anabaptists” … hmmm … could this be a reference to our new Minister of Finance, Grande Prairie-Wapiti MLA Travis Toews, who until getting elected was also a Board member of the Peace River Bible Institute …?

  5. Bruce Turton

    October 24th, 2019

    As Calgary based Husky Oil lays off many, in order to give shareholders more on their dividend payments, I shall be watching closely how the coming cuts (which were inevitable with the current neoliberals in government) will affect those in Calgary, the south of the province, and particularly rural Albertans. Issues have already arisen that have caused some in rural ridings to get their hackles up, but how much more is to come?!!

  6. I'm a socialist

    October 24th, 2019

    I can’t wait to say I told you so. Can’t wait. However, as stated above, Albertans are stupid and will blame anyone but themselves. We voted for this crap, as a population.

  7. Death and Gravity

    October 27th, 2019

    I do not think that things are not going to get getter in Alberta. The UCP will not be defeated in the next generation. They have demonstrated that the public service is a handy scapegoat on which to blame the permanent crisis in government finances. And the worse things get in the oil patch and rural areas in general, the more blame there will be to pour on their heads. As long as some former rig pigs or unemployed Husky engineers or farmers lack a pension, they will be all over taking them away from anyone who does have one. My belief is that anyone in the public service (in which I include University faculty) who can leave should leave, in their own best interests. It’s time to go.


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