Guest editorial

Signs of hope about getting spending under control coming out of Ottawa

If Prime Minister Stephen Harper owned a dart board, it would probably have a well-punctured photo of Mike Duffy pinned in the middle of it.

Not only has the prime minister’s personal approval rating taken a beating over Senator Duffy’s expense claims, he’s lost the best chief of staff he ever had. And his Conservative party is now in second place, just ahead of the NDP in the polls and well back of the hated Liberals.

Over at the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, we’re thankful that Senator Duffy and his colleagues, senators Pamela Wallin, Patrick Brazeau and Mac Harb are being made to account for their expense claims.

We’re also pleased the Senate, after decades of denial, is bringing in Canada’s Auditor General to examine the books of every senator. Senators, and MPs for that matter, need to be accountable for their spending.

They need to put the details of their spending – including their receipts and contracts – online for all Canadians to see. MPs are still dragging their feet on that issue, despite the downside of big scandals when Canadians accidentally find out about corruption through leaks to the media.

If Harper’s dart board is getting a workout, another reason is the good work he’s done that’s gone unnoticed because of the scandals.

Taxpayers are naturally more concerned with horror stories than they are with good news – they expect things to run smoothly, after all – that’s why they pay taxes. And journalists deliver the news that most concerns voters. Case in point, over the past few years we’ve read quite a few shocking stories about the growing cost of the federal government’s payroll.

In the first five years after Stephen Harper became prime minister, federal payroll costs soared from $29 billion to $42 billion. In the same period, the average cost of keeping just one employee on the federal payroll ballooned from $86,000 to $111,379.

Perhaps worse, on any given day, 19,000 federal government employees are off sick. That’s more employees than actually report to work at the Canadian operations of auto makers General Motors and Chrysler, combined.

And despite obvious incompetence and malingering in federal offices, the government in 2011 fired just 99 staffers for incompetence and 54 for misconduct, from amongst more than 250,000 or just 0.06 per cent.

The Canadians Taxpayers Federation has been vocal, calling attention to the dangers of low productivity and rising costs. The Parliamentary Budget Officer projects that if something isn’t done, the average cost of one federal employee will reach $129,800 by 2015.

Fortunately, the Harper government has recently announced concrete steps to tackle poor performance and phoney sick days.

Treasury Board president Tony Clement announced that government employees will now need to meet performance objectives. There will be mid-year performance evaluations, and annual written performance assessments.

Staffers who fall short will get a game plan to improve their performance and a deadline. If they succeed, everybody wins. If they fail, then they will be demoted or terminated.

“Either poor performers improve and become productive employees or we will let them go,” Clement said. “We owe it to Canadians and we owe it to the vast majority of committed, hard-working public servants to make sure everyone is pulling their weight.”

It’s refreshing to hear these words coming from the mouth of a federal cabinet minister.

To translate these words into effective action will be difficult. To reward hard work and punish fraudulent sick claims, to save taxpayers’ money and raise the productivity of federal employees, will require determination, persistence, and the focused attention of federal politicians, senior executives, managers and front-level workers.

Taxpayers need to hold them to account if should they fall short on their promises, but this is a worthy initiative, and it deserves our praise.

Gregory Thomas is the federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

100 Mile House Free Press