There is no doubt that the Harper Conservatives hold a marked disdain for the public service, having trimmed thousands from the federal bureaucracy over the last couple of years, and characterized public servants as abusive of sick leave, requiring aggressive performance management. Moreover, the public service, responsible as it is for the regulatory, redistributional and welfare functions of the state, is at some natural odds with the pro-corporate libertarian views espoused by many Conservative ideologues.
Even so, progressives’ counter-disdain for Conservatives often obscures the reality that the Liberals—perhaps the best formal political manifestation in Canada of what Chris Hedges terms the ‘liberal class’—often had regressive effects on the country not too dissimilar from those of their Tory counterparts, though perhaps with more palatable public relations.
Take the example of federal public service employment in Canada. In late June, the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) issued updated employment numbers for the period spanning 1990 and 2012, which allows us to see how the bureaucracy (i.e., core public service including separate agencies) changed in size over the period of Liberal (1993-2005) and Conservative (2006-2012) rule.
What is immediately clear from these figures is that the public service actually shrank by roughly 3.4% during the 12-year Liberal tenure, while it has grown by some 14% during the 7-year Conservative period ending in 2012.
Let’s take a closer look at the Liberal period first. In 1993, when Jean Chrétien became Prime Minister with a Liberal majority, public service employment stood at 252,566. Soon after, however, the Liberals undertook Program Review, “a review of all non-statutory spending programs and a re-examination of the federal government’s role in delivering these programs.” These cuts ultimately involved massive reductions in transfers to provinces covering healthcare and education programs, which had long term effects on things like hospital waiting lists.
By the time the outcomes of Program Review and its second phase (presented in 1996) were fully implemented in 1999, the public service had shrunk to 203,476, a 19.4% drop from 1993 levels. (Indeed, Finance Minister Paul Martin made the remarkable claim in his 1995 Budget Speech that: “Relative to the size of our economy, program spending will be lower in 1996-97 than at any time since 1951.”) Notably, this approach was heavily praised by the right-wing Fraser Institute in 2011, with the organization’s Niels Veldhuis imploring Conservative “Finance Minister [Jim] Flaherty to take similar, decisive steps that would allow him to balance the federal budget within the next two years.”
From 1999 on, the public service began growing under the Liberals until it reached 243,971 in 2005, which still amounted to a net 3.4% drop from 1993 levels.
In contrast, the federal public service grew under the Conservatives between 2005 (the Conservatives assumed power in January 2006) and 2010, from 243,971 to 282,955, respectively, a 16% increase. This positive trend ended in 2011, however; that year, employment growth effectively flatlined, with the public service losing 603 jobs, and then in 2012 employment dropped to 278,092. Between 2005 and 2012, then, the federal public service experienced net growth of 14%.
As one might suspect, growth in the Conservative years was led by dramatic hiring in security organizations, like the Canadian Border Services Agency (54.6%), Public Safety Canada (53%), the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s civilian contingent (40%), and Correctional Services Canada (31%), while departments charged with the delivery of regulatory, redistributive and welfare services, such as the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Service Canada (which administers social programs like Employment Insurance and Old Age Security) and Veterans Affairs, were cut deeply.
As an aside, it is worth contextualizing public service growth with overall population growth: while Canada’s population grew in the 1993-2012 period by about 22%, Canada’s federal public service grew by only 10.1% in the same timeframe. In other words, the federal public service is today serving a greater number of Canadians with relatively fewer bodies.