The latest report by Canada's parliamentary budget office appears to put to rest the myth of fat-cat public servants collecting far larger pay packets than their counterparts in the private sector.
Virtually all growth in federal public service pay over the last 11 years has merely kept up with inflation, and additional hires comprised about half of the extra $7.8 billion in pay for public servants between 2001-02 and 2011-12, the report shows.
Salaries accounted for about 47 per cent of the increase, the office says, but 96 per cent of that was just to keep pace with inflation — only four per cent could be counted as real income gains over the 11-year period covered by the study.
New Democrat critics were quick to jump on the findings as evidence that the Harper government unfairly targeted public servants in their austerity measures.
"The Conservatives like to point the finger at workers, unions and everyone but themselves for increasing costs, but this report shows the real story," said NDP Treasury Board critic Mathieu Ravignat.
"The reality is, employees took a pay cut while the Conservatives went on a hiring binge."
The report was compiled at the request of NDP MP Paul Dewar, who asked the budget office to determine what was driving increases in federal labour costs.
Dewar said the findings show Treasury Board President Tony Clement did not have the facts before launching an attack against the public service as bloated, accusing the government of targeting public servants for political reasons.
"They are using the public service as whipping boys and as a wedge between those who are having a hard time at the moment and public servants," Dewar said.
In an email response, Clement's spokesman noted that at $43 billion annually, public sector pay and benefits account for the government's largest operating expenditure.
"We have taken reasonable steps through the 2009 Expenditure Restraint Act and Budget 2012's taxpayer savings measures to keep public sector labour spending in check," the statement adds.
On average, public servants earned slightly less than $70,000 last year, according to the data in the report.
That's less than the $114,000 estimate the budget office reported last December, but officials said a different methodology was used — the new calculation does not include benefits and does not include salaries for the RCMP and the military.
The report does not attempt to compare public to private sector salary scales, only whether public service remuneration had grown substantially in the past decade or so.
The PBO also appeared to dismiss the myth that costs have been driven by reclassification, involving moving public servants to higher-paying categories even though their duties have remained largely the same. Costs due to classification added less than five per cent of the total increase, the PBO found.
"Cumulatively, changes in classification and real wage growth contributed little to overall labour cost growth," the report, one of the first by new watchdog Jean-Denis Frechette, concludes.
"Recent reductions in the level of employment and the Expenditure Restraint Act of 2009 have been successful in limiting the growth in labour costs," it adds.
However, it notes that some labour cost growth is inevitable if public servants are to maintain a constant standard of living.
Over the 11 years surveyed, the federal government spent $354 billion on compensation for its employees, exclusive of the RCMP and the military.