Having balanced the budget – not really, but Kathleen Wynne makes the claim anyway – the Liberals are on a spending spree. The latest move involves paying off public sector unions, both as a way to ensure labour peace leading up to next year’s election and to buy the workers’ votes.
Both are troubling goals. Ontario could certainly use some labour unrest if it leads to thinning the ranks and reducing unsustainable spending on unproductive things – i.e. salaries and benefits. Moreover, the growing size of the public sector means it already wields too much power on election day, where self-interest overrides the public good each and every time.
If those on the public payroll weren’t allowed to vote, the conflict of interest would be reduced, but that’s beyond the pale. Under the circumstances, governments should be defending the public’s interest, but they long ago abandoned that stance in favour of appeasement.
Wages typically make up 50 to 60 per cent of the tax dollars spent by governments, so that’s where the cuts have to be made to get spending back under control. That’s especially true if the goal is to maintain programs and avoid large tax increases, in which case something’s got to give. That something is the civil service salaries.
Most of us have no problem seeing government workers as overpaid and underworked. Fair or not, that’s the perception. Layoffs and wage freezes (if not outright cuts) are an easy sell to the public. Public service compensation now outstrips the private sector by some 30 per cent when wages, benefits and pensions are factored in, and it’s time to begin reversing that trend.
Public sector unions, concerned with their lot, not yours, are quick to argue that private sector compensations should rise rather than rolling back what’s paid to government workers. A nice idea, but one detached from current economic reality, and an issue government has no direct control over, unlike their own budgets.
The other union tactic, painting a dire picture of service cuts, also has little credence. Indiscriminate layoffs could theoretically see needed frontline workers let go, but that’s an unlikely scenario. There are ways of judiciously reducing the size of the civil service with minimal impacts. Lowering wages would free up money to tackle deficits and to funnel money where it’s needed.
Making cuts and wage freezes work requires the public to think about service levels and what they’re getting for their money: wage increases and program spending that have routinely outstripped inflation has left us paying much more while getting little or nothing more in return.
Salary figures indicate a growing gap between civil service wages and the average earning of private sector employees. The discrepancy is likely to increase, as average industry wages will remain stagnant or decline dramatically in some industries as layoffs take hold. Unemployment remains high and private-sector wages depressed.
With no bottom line – politicians seem to have few qualms about dipping deeper on their repeated trips to the well – governments simply pass the increases along to a public forced to pay taxes, a far cry from the situation faced in the private sector.
Fairness is important, certainly, but the priority is fairness to the average taxpaying resident – all other interests take a back seat.