Sev­er­ance fight un­flat­ter­ing for both sides

Winnipeg Free Press - - NEWS - DAN LETT dan.lett@freep­ress.mb.ca

ENIOR po­lit­i­cal staff are a valu­able com­mod­ity. They can make good politi­cians great, and make bad politi­cians seem al­most cred­i­ble.

How­ever, they are also costly, in both fi­nan­cial and po­lit­i­cal terms.

Ev­i­dence of this comes out of the re­cent ver­bal spar­ring be­tween Pre­mier Brian Pal­lis­ter and NDP Leader Wab Kinew over the money paid to the se­nior staff fired by for­mer pre­mier

Greg Selinger at the height of the cab­i­net re­volt that nearly cost him his job.

Un­will­ing to work with ad­vis­ers whose chief ad­vice was to step down, Selinger in 2015 and 2016 fired seven mem­bers of his se­nior staff, trig­ger­ing nearly $670,000 in sev­er­ance pay­ments. Selinger ex­ac­er­bated the sit­u­a­tion by at­tempt­ing to con­ceal the in­di­vid­ual amounts paid to the out­go­ing staffers, and then hiring sev­eral high-priced re­place­ments on con­tract, spark­ing weeks of an­gry de­bate as then-Op­po­si­tion leader Pal­lis­ter ham­mered away at the wounded-duck NDP.

The is­sue raised its head again this past week as the pre­mier raised con­cerns about how one of those

NDP staffers — Liam Martin — had re­turned to the leg­is­la­ture to work for Kinew less than three years after he re­ceived $146,000 in sev­er­ance for be­ing fired with­out cause as Selinger’s chief of staff.

It’s hard to know how much this is­sue contributed to the drub­bing the NDP took in the April 2016 elec­tion.

Although anti-tax lob­bies love to dwell on the largesse of pen­sions and sev­er­ance paid to politi­cians and se­nior man­darins, the is­sue prob­a­bly has lit­tle res­o­nance for the gen­eral pub­lic. And let us re­mem­ber Selinger’s NDP gen­er­ated a wide ar­ray of is­sues — from chronic over­spend­ing to scan­dals in­volv­ing gov­ern­ment con­tracts go­ing to po­lit­i­cal friends — to trig­ger the re­buke it would ul­ti­mately re­ceive

Sfrom vot­ers.

That does not mean it’s un­im­por­tant. Sev­er­ance in pol­i­tics is al­ways a con­tentious sub­ject. Whether it’s be­ing paid to staffers or politi­cians, a cer­tain seg­ment of the pub­lic re­sents ev­ery dime paid out to make some­one go away. In fact, op­po­si­tion to sev­er­ance has been one of Pal­lis­ter’s fore­most po­lit­i­cal causes. In the mid-2000s, then-Con­ser­va­tive MP Pal­lis­ter led the charge to ex­pose the abuse of ex­pense ac­counts by Lib­eral pa­tron­age ap­pointees to Crown cor­po­ra­tions. The pre­mier still cites his dogged takedown of for­mer Lib­eral cab­i­net min­is­ter David Ding­wall — he of the “I’m en­ti­tled to my en­ti­tle­ments” fame — as one of his fore­most po­lit­i­cal ac­com­plish­ments.

You would think that kind of per­for­mance would have spared Pal­lis­ter some flog­ging in 2006 when he “re­tired” from fed­eral pol­i­tics (he opted not to run for re-elec­tion) and ac­cepted a $77,700 sev­er­ance pay­ment. Alas, Pal­lis­ter was among the politi­cians who were sev­er­ance- and pen­sion­shamed by the Cana­dian Tax­pay­ers Fed­er­a­tion fol­low­ing the elec­tion.

Pal­lis­ter also dab­bled in the pro­vi­sion of sev­er­ance when his gov­ern­ment took over from the NDP in 2016. The new Tory gov­ern­ment paid out more than $4.3 mil­lion in sev­er­ance to

112 po­lit­i­cal staff or se­nior bu­reau­crats who were fired or left vol­un­tar­ily. That was twice as many ter­mi­na­tions and nearly four times the sev­er­ance pay­out pro­vided by the NDP when they came to power in 1999.

Is sev­er­ance jus­ti­fied in some cases, and not in oth­ers?

It’s hard to ar­gue Selinger’s de­ci­sion to pay staff he no longer con­sid­ered to be loyal was im­moral, and the Tory gov­ern­ment’s pay­outs to staff and bu­reau­crats was no­ble. In both in­stances, po­lit­i­cal lead­ers were us­ing tax­payer money to man­age the po­lit­i­cal staff of gov­ern­ment, which is the pre­rog­a­tive of the first min­is­ter.

It does bear men­tion­ing Selinger trig­gered his pay­outs mid-term to help him quell a muti­nous up­ris­ing, while Pal­lis­ter was only us­ing it as a tool to man­age staff during a tran­si­tion to power. That hav­ing been said, the sheer num­ber of peo­ple the Tories ejected was far above his­toric lev­els, sug­gest­ing Pal­lis­ter may have been ei­ther more para­noid or more venge­ful than other pre­miers.

The prin­ci­pal source of Pal­lis­ter’s out­rage has been Martin’s de­ci­sion to re­turn to work for Kinew less than three years after tak­ing a sev­er­ance pay­ment. The op­tics aren’t great, but there are no rules pre­vent­ing a po­lit­i­cal staffer from tak­ing sev­er­ance — cal­cu­lated by a for­mula in­cluded in the em­ploy­ment con­tract for all se­nior gov­ern­ment staff and man­agers — and then re­turn­ing to the same job some time later.

The bat­tle over sev­er­ance is re­ally about is­sues that run much deeper than just em­ploy­ment con­tracts and ter­mi­na­tions with­out cause. These are flash­points in the bit­ter re­la­tion­ship be­tween two par­ties that truly, sin­cerely dis­like each other.

Such is the state of mod­ern pol­i­tics. Po­lit­i­cal foes have al­ways com­peted hard against each other. But the hyper-par­ti­san­ship that has be­come the stan­dard op­er­at­ing pro­ce­dure for po­lit­i­cal par­ties now turns an is­sue as rel­a­tively mun­dane as sev­er­ance into a full-blown bat­tle royale.

Does all this spar­ring ac­com­plish any­thing of value? Out­side of putting a charge into the deep­est core of the hard-core con­stituency of each party, lit­tle is ac­com­plished when politi­cians cross swords over is­sues like this.

That doesn’t mean it will stop any­time soon. Nei­ther the NDP nor the Tories will make any move to change the sev­er­ance pro­vi­sions of em­ploy­ment con­tracts for se­nior staff; it would be im­pos­si­ble to get good peo­ple to work in pol­i­tics and gov­ern­ment with­out them. They will, how­ever, spend time judging the sev­er­ance de­ci­sions of their po­lit­i­cal en­e­mies.

At one time or an­other, all politi­cians from all par­ties will take time howl­ing about sev­er­ance. They don’t change the rules be­cause, clearly, they en­joy the fight more than the right and wrong of the is­sue.

Wel­come to the po­lit­i­cal equiv­a­lent of the ger­bil wheel.

RUTH BON­NEVILLE / WIN­NIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Pre­mier Brian Pal­lis­ter (above) crit­i­cized the NDP for re-hiring Liam Martin (left), who re­ceived $146,000 in sev­er­ance less than three years after leav­ing for­mer pre­mier Greg Selinger’s gov­ern­ment.

PHIL HOSSACK / WIN­NIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

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