A real conversation about the role of government

Every Canadian taxpayer is shelling out, on average, around $1,600 in taxes every year to pay for our bloated federal workforce. That's a lot of money. But there is a way to ease this burden.

Ottawa is currently trying to do just that, by tracking employee performance and overhauling sick leave benefits. Now, I'm all for trying to control spending. If we can save a couple million — or a couple hundred million — let's do it. But too often, governments try to rein in the cost of public service through what I call "junk savings."

Solutions like streamlining the training of civil servants, or better controlling their travel expenses, appeal to many voters. And rightly so. However, such measures don't do much to alter the (dismal) picture of public spending. In the grand scheme of things, they are merely drops in the ocean.

Think about this: Treasury Board president Tony Clement recently said the federal government spends $43 billion annually on public service wages and benefits, its "most significant expenditure."

According to estimates from the Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO), the average public servant costs Canadians $114,000 a year in salary, pension and benefits. And there were over 375,000 (full-time equivalent) of them as of 2011-2012. Worse: the PBO says this cost will rise in coming years.

To take just one example, annual travel expenditures for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency totalled a paltry $14,346 last year, for a workforce of 7,200 employees.

So how can we seriously reduce the cost of public employees? I say, let's have fewer of them. Real savings won't be found by making them make do with $22 a day for lunch instead of $35. But removing someone making $100K a year from the government payroll? Now we're talking.

Eliminating, say, 20% of those civil servant jobs, is much more of a solution than reducing some perk or another by 50%. For example, I would privatize or abolish most of what Industry Canada does. That would be some 5,500 fewer bureaucrats right there.

Of course, this all presupposes one thing: that we are willing to have a real conversation about the role of government. Because the idea is not to have fewer public servants doing the same things, but fewer public servants doing fewer things … and doing them better, if possible.

Michel Kelly-Gagnon is President and CEO of the Montreal Economic Institute. The views reflected in this column are his own.
* This column appears in Sun Media newspapers, published both in several of Canada's key urban markets (Toronto, Ottawa, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg and London) and in its 28 community dailies.

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