Franco Terrazzano: Government workers made out well during the pandemic

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Franco Terrazzano: Government workers made out well during the pandemic
© Provided by Financial Post Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland during a news conference in Ottawa.

These days it seems there are three certainties in life: death, taxes and bigger paycheques for government employees. Even a pandemic that sent thousands of workers to the ranks of the unemployed couldn’t stop the iron law of government wage increases. In fact, the pandemic has laid bare the divide between those living behind the golden government gates that shield them from financial reality and the taxpayers who are on the hook to pay the growing tab.

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During the pandemic, 528,347 federal and provincial government employees received at least one pay raise, according to government documents obtained by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. Those growing salaries will come from the pockets of workers and small-business owners, many of whom took pay cuts during lockdowns, lost their jobs or were forced to close their doors.

Not a single federal or provincial government reduced pay during lockdowns, according to research from Secondstreet.org.

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Many municipal employees are also riding the gravy train. More than 34,000 employees of the City of Toronto received a raise during 2020’s lockdowns, and so did nearly 14,000 city employees in Calgary and 11,400 in Ottawa. How many other municipalities handed out raises?

Given the emergency, it would have been perfectly fair for politicians to stop these raises — even ones built into contracts. What is unfair is making Canadians who took pay cuts or lost their jobs or businesses pay for these raises.

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Stopping the raises wouldn’t have been rocket science. After all, politicians control the purse strings. If union bosses don’t want to accept haircuts, let them hand out the pink slips to their members. That’s the strategy former Alberta Premier Ralph Klein adopted in implementing a five per cent wage reduction in the early 1990s, when he had to extinguish Alberta’s deficit fire.

We have 338 MPs. You’d think just one of them would have been willing to take a stand against universal raises. But you’d be wrong. At the height of the pandemic, as the debt ballooned to the $1-trillion mark and beyond, Ottawa agreed to new contracts for thousands of its employees — and not a single MP objected.

It’s a good bet many politicians haven’t a clue how many bureaucrats received a raise during lockdowns. But they should. Given the mess government finances are in and the fact that labour is government’s biggest cost, politicians should always consider taxpayers’ ability to pay before rubber stamping raises.

Then again, it would be tough for politicians to force a hard bargain when they have been helping themselves to raises. While you and yours struggled through COVID-19, your representative in Ottawa pocketed two pay increases. Backbench MPs are now receiving $6,900 more than they did pre-pandemic, while the prime minister will pocket an extra $13,800.

CTF supporters received correspondence from more than 100 MPs — Liberals, Conservatives and New Democrats — who either didn’t support the politician pay raise or committed to donating their own raise to charity. With all these MPs seemingly against the raises, why haven’t we heard a peep from party leaders about reversing the pandemic pay hikes?

Taxpayers are also paying for more bureaucrats. Federal Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland claims “we have recovered 106 per cent of the jobs lost at the peak of the pandemic.” But these new jobs come with a bigger tax bill for the private sector.

There are 312,700 more government jobs across Canada than there were just before the pandemic — about 4.2 million in December 2021 vs. only 3.9 million in February 2020, according to Statistics Canada — including an extra 114,500 “ public administration ” bureaucrats. Over the same period, the number of jobs outside government fell by 80,100.

This follows years of growth in the number of federal bureaucrats. Between 2017 and 2021, the federal bureaucracy ballooned by 56,905 new employees. That’s more than 14,000 a year.

Politicians will soon be tripping over themselves looking for more money to pay off the huge debts they have incurred. They should start by looking in the mirror and forcing government to find ways to save money, just as the rest of us have had to do with our own budgets.

Franco Terrazzano is federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

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