Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Civil servants get $6 billion to show up

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Ottawa is in the middle of sending out a flood of cheques to bureaucrats across the land -- tens of thousands of dollars apiece -- for no reason except that for years they turned up and did their jobs (while complaining mightily about how badly they're treated, no doubt).

The money isn't a bonus or a reward. It's straight cash, a free cheque on top of their usual salary and all the other perks and benefits they get that you and I don't. It has been reported several times in the media, but for some reason doesn't seem to have registered with the Canadian public. Perhaps because it is so out of whack with what most Canadians would consider normal good sense that they can't quite bring themselves to believe it. "Wait a minute -- we're paying taxes so the government can shower public employees with a few billion dollars in money they did nothing special to earn?" Even for Ottawa it's beyond the bizarre. People just can't grasp that it's happening.

But it is. The federal government is sending out payments of anything from $20,000 to $150,000 apiece to its employees. These are the same workers who have been turning up at the office wearing "Harper hates me" buttons, calling in sick at double the national rate and pouring in disability claims based on mental illness, due to the perceived stress of their jobs. Some stress: Oh my God they've sent me another cheque! This one's for $10,000! How am I supposed to cope with this?

So much money is pouring into bureaucrat bank accounts that no one seems sure what the end total will be. The CBC reports it could be as much as $6 billion in all. Treasury Board president Tony Clement has been sending it out in dribs and drabs of a billion or so a year, and insists it's a good deal in the long run, because it will save him from sending out even bigger payoffs in the future. "The savings for Canadian taxpayers are significant," he told the network. (Clement, remember, is the guy who thought $50 million was entirely reasonable for some new bike paths and gazebos in his Muskoka riding as part of the G20 extravaganza, and snuck it in as a reduction in "border congestion".)

One reason Canadians have been slow to catch on to what's been happening may be the arcane reasoning for the windfall. Since time immemorial, federal civil servants have had the right to "severance" even when retiring or quitting their jobs. Usually severance is paid to someone who has been forcibly separated from their position, as in getting fired or laid off.

Not in Ottawa. In government-land, they get to keep their jobs, their salaries and all their perks, and get the severance, too. Taxpayers are forking out extra cash just because someone showed up for work regularly, until they found a better job or decided to retire and coast along on their generous pension.

For decades, governments just paid the money and kept quiet about it. The Harper government, to its credit, recognized the absurdity of the situation and is putting an end to it. But rather than just tell its employees to forget it, which would undoubtedly run into some legal issues, it is buying them off one fat windfall cheque after another. To make up for the loss of the perk, it is giving employees one week's pay for every year of service. Clement is right: By paying them now it will avoid paying them even more later, and will eventually save Ottawa from paying anything at all. But the smell of the thing won't go away.

As the QMI agency pointed out, "It's severance pay without the severance."

"Union leaders looked across the negotiating table at a bunch of spineless putzes who sold out the taxpayers who depend on them," steamed Canadian Taxpayers Federation federal director Gregory Thomas.

"We are spending billions of dollars to give severance to people who are not losing their jobs. It makes no sense whatsoever -- I am sure the lake-house market in Ottawa must be booming right now -- it's outrageous," said Dan Kelly, spokesman of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. "If you work for the civil service for 30 years, not only do you retire to one of the best pensions available, but you get a cheque for $50 grand to cushion the blow en route to your dream retirement."

Dan Kelly, head of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, told the CBC: "To spend billions of dollars in severance package for people that are not losing their jobs, people that have the best form of job security in the country, that have gold-plated pensions to leave to, just seems nuts.

"This should be taken away from civil servants... But to trade it off for higher wage increments, I think will not pass the smell test for average Canadians."

Union leaders think it's all fine, naturally. The money has always been paid, so that means it always should be paid. The fact that it comes in the midst of a nationwide effort to portray the civil service as an entity under siege from heartless Conservative penny-pinchers doesn't strike them as even mildly contradictory. In fact, according to the CBC, the union bosses managed to wheedle an extra 0.75 per cent pay increase out of the government as an extra added incentive to convince the poor mandarins to accept the billion-dollar buyout. Which would, of course, negate much of the savings expected from the program.

"Only in Ottawa," you say? Unfortunately not. These people are all over the country. The government employs 280,000 people. Every single one of them underpaid and underappreciated. But a lot richer than they used to be.

Kelly McParland is a columnist

for the National Post.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 7, 2012 A14

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