Severance fight unflattering for both sides
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
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.
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.