Public sector booming – or ballooning? - The Orca

Public sector booming – or ballooning?

Rob Shaw 2

Rob Shaw: Canada’s public sector has never been so big, a trend that should continue under BC’s NDP government.

A record number of people are now working in Canada’s public sector, picking up jobs in federal, provincial, or municipal governments, according to the latest Statistics Canada labour market survey.

Not only has the public sector fully recovered from the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s now posting the highest employment levels in the country’s history, with 4.1 million people.

Nationally, much of the growth appears to be driven by a federal hiring spree under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

But in BC, the growth has also been dramatic since the government changed more than four years ago. And how the public service is handled remains one of the key differences between the previous BC Liberal government and current New Democrat government.

BC’s “public sector” has grown 58 per cent since the BC NDP took power in 2017, from 310,000 to 490,000 in the most recent budget.

It’s a big increase, but also a big sector.

It includes the core provincial government as well as health authorities, K-12 school staff and teachers, universities, Crown corporations, agencies, tribunals, museums, corrections and public transit agencies, to name a few.

An extreme demand for nurses, healthcare staff and doctors across the province existed pre-pandemic, but has grown into a crisis due to the burnout caused by COVID-19.

The education system also grew as part of the provincial government launching an ambitious school-building process designed to deal with overcrowding and portables that had built up for years.

Other factors include the creation of new bodies like the BC Human Rights Tribunal and the Civil Resolution Tribunal, as well as a new Crown corporation called BC Infrastructure Benefits that acts as the “employer” for the BC NDP’s new ideologically-driven union-only community benefits projects.

It’s also possible to drill down into the numbers a different way.

The core “civil service” that works in government ministries delivering programs has increased approximately 24 per cent since 2017, from 32,732 employees to 40,702 employees.

Those are direct staffing decisions by the BC NDP administration, and include not only beefing up existing ministries but also the nebulous world of partisan hiring for minister’s offices, the premier’s office, and the ever-growing Government Communications & Public Engagement.

The most recent budget in April cited growth needed for “increased staffing needs across the public service to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, and for expansion of programs including CleanBC, mental health services, housing, and natural resource permitting” as well as to bring some tax services back into core government.

The BC Liberals kept a heavy thumb on the civil service, eliminating almost 3,000 jobs between 2010 and 2013, while routinely announcing austerity measures for employees, which banned travel and froze wages.

Ideologically, the BC Liberals believe that left unchecked the government becomes bloated and produces a never-ending supply of business-stifling red tape and byzantine regulations. It must be routinely trimmed in order to keep it from getting in the way of the private-sector growth that creates BC’s actual jobs, the BC Liberals believe. It doesn’t help that the major unions in the public sector are heavy supporters of the BC NDP.

It’s perhaps no surprise then that the BC NDP views the civil service, and its growth, differently.

Ideologically, the BC NDP considers the government a social safety net for the most vulnerable, a regulator to keep the private sector in check on safety and fairness, and an arm of social justice, change and equality.

Only the government can put in place regulations that protect the public from private businesses that would prefer to cut corners on safety and fairness in order to maximize profits, the BC NDP believes. A robust provincial government also helps ensure equality, fair treatment and that programs and services are delivered with the goal of benefiting people and not driving profits to private shareholders, according to New Democrats.

In the near future, BC’s public sector is on track to grow as steeply as 5.8 per cent annually in some areas.

Part of that is driven by the BC NDP slowly rehiring workers in seniors’ homes, long-term care and assisted living back into the health authorities, by scrapping contracts with private companies – including 4,000 hospital housekeeping and food services workers in August.

It’s a reversal from the BC Liberals, who in 2002 tried to cut several thousands of jobs out of public health care in a bid to have the private sector do the work more efficiently.

You might expect both parties, given their positions on the public service, to be at odds over now bringing those workers back.

But when the BC NDP changed the law to begin the repatriation in 2018, it received unanimous support in the legislature, including from the BC Liberals.

It turns out, much of the private sector had treated the health care workers horribly.

Large seniors care home companies, in part owned by China, repeatedly fired and rehired BC workers at lower wages and reduced benefits, driving down their working conditions over more than a decade using a practice called contract flipping. Similar mistreatment was doled out to housekeeping and food services workers inside the large multinational companies that became their employers.

Whatever savings BC thought it would see in contracting those jobs out has been swamped by the staffing shortage the mistreatment caused, and the recruitment crisis worsened by a decade of shoddy treatment.

That experience has convinced New Democrats they are on the right track in handling the public sector. With another three year’s left in the party’s mandate, expect growth to only continue.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 13 years covering BC politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for The Orca. He is the co-author of the national best-selling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.