Campbell’s comments ‘ clarified,’ but numbers still not known
VICTORIA hen Premier Gordon Campbell announced recently the B. C. Liberals were preparing to run deficit budgets, his speech contained what was taken as a forecast of significant layoffs in the public service.
He promised a “ new restrictive spending regime” in his Feb. 2 text, with a special fund “ to mitigate impacts on individuals and ... to ensure we have critical staff available for key programs.”
Then came this hint about possible impacts: “ We have also made a purposeful effort to ensure that it is not just the lower ranks of staff that manage through change. The senior executive ranks will be reduced by 20 per cent to contribute to this overall belt-tightening.”
That brought an immediate response from the main union re p re s e n t i n g gove r n m e n t employees.
“ Premier Campbell signalled t h a t [ t h e ] g o v e r n m e n t i s preparing to make major cuts to important public services in the upcoming provincial budget,” said the later-in-the-day press release from the B. C. Government and Service Employees’ Union.
“ Campbell said there would be job losses for front-line public servants and managers alike,” the release continued. “ The premier told media that 20 per cent of all management positions will be eliminated.”
Union president Darryl Walker was reported to be seeking an immediate meeting with the premier’s office to clarify what he took to be pending and sizable staffing reductions.
“ The Liberals seem ready to embark on yet more upheaval in public services at a time when many British Columbians have been hurt by the downturn and will need to rely more on important public services,” he was quoted as saying. “ We’ll be watching closely and be ready to respond to protect public services from a renewed attack by Premier Campbell.”
WSome figured the Campbell government was following the same path as the Bill Bennett government — which targeted one public sector job in four in the 1980s — or its own firstterm effort to eliminate almost one position in three.
Others noted that the latest threat followed on promises to “ renew” the public service from both Campbell and Jessica McDonald, his deputy minister and head of the public service.
As indignation mounted, McDonald was prompted to respond directly to government employees.
“ I am writing to speak to you about the current economic downturn and what it means for us in the public service,” she said in a Feb. 5 open letter. “ I know that each of you may be experiencing some anxiety about how your job and the work you do may be impacted by these budget decisions.”
She made four clarifying points.
“ First, staff displacement will be considered only as a last resort. Every effort will be made to address any impacts that should occur through natural attrition, which means not filling all positions as they become vacant.
“ Second, the collective agreement currently in place has not been, and will not be, impacted.”
Third, the 20-per-cent reduction applied only to “ the senior executive ranks — deputy ministers and assistant deputy ministers.” For them, this would “ result in redistributed responsibilities and some larger workloads.”
Contrary to the assumption made by the union, “ this measure does not extend to managers and/ or front-line supervisors. Any contrary information you may have heard or seen circulated in our organization is untrue.”
Fourth: “ There is no hiring freeze in effect. However, you will notice fewer job opportunities being posted in the next while as we manage through this period.”
P utting all this together, McDonald is aiming to reduce the cost of running the public service through attrition and the usual delays in filling vacancies. No hiring freeze, but government will be more choosy about filling openings. Probably it will concentrate on key jobs where recruitment may be easier with less competition from the private sector.
Left unsaid is what happens if those measures don’t produce the necessary budget savings. Then, presumably, there would be layoffs.
But from the tone of her letter, I’d expect considerably less than the 20-per-cent target for senior executive ranks. More on the order of the several thousand positions eliminated by the Glen Clark government in the mid-1990s, most of which were accomplished voluntarily, without layoffs.
A fuller breakdown will presumably be more apparent when the budget and three-year fiscal plan is tabled in the legislature on Tuesday. Public servants will be watching to see what happens with one other line item in that document.
Last year, the plan included a contingency of $ 400 million for increased public sector compensation starting April 1 of next year, after most current contracts expire.
Pessimists expect when the revised three-year plan is tabled next week, the dollars set aside for future pay increases will be reduced to zero.