Manitoba should cut 36,000 civil service jobs, think-tank says

A Winnipeg-based think-tank recommends shrinking Manitoba's civil service workforce by about 36,000 jobs because it says the sector is too big for the province's population size.

Frontier Centre report suggests cutting public sector jobs by 25% would save Manitoba $2.2B annually

The Frontier Centre for Public Policy released a report this week suggesting Manitoba's civil service workforce is bloated compared to other provinces and should be reduced. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

A Winnipeg-based think-tank recommends shrinking Manitoba's civil service workforce by about 36,000 jobs because it says the sector is too big for the province's population.

The Frontier Centre for Public Policy and the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies released a report this week suggesting the public sector in Manitoba is bloated compared to other provinces.

Cutting taxpayer-funded jobs by 25 per cent would save nearly $2.2 billion annually and bring Manitoba's public sector workforce in line with other provinces, said report co-author Marco Navarro-Génie. That's enough to wipe out Manitoba's current projected deficit, which the Pallister government said will soar over $1 billion by the end of the fiscal year ending this month.

"The fundamental impetus of the study is simply to show the data in a different light and provide a motivation, if you will, for debate on the size and the cost of the public sector across the country," said Navarro-Génie, who is also the president and CEO of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies.

Using Statistics Canada data, researchers looked at the number of public servants per 1,000 people in each province.

Canadian provinces on average have 83 public sector employees per 1,000 people, the report states. Manitoba has 111 public sector employees per 1,000 people.

For the purposes of the study, researchers only focused on workers paid a wage by a provincial or municipal government, excluding federal workers, Crown corporations and arm's length agencies.

Navarro-Génie and his colleagues believe the workforce reduction could be phased in by a few per cent each year, for between five and seven years, through retirements and attrition.

"No one has to be fired," he said. 

But David Camfield, associate professor of labour studies at the University of Manitoba, said the recommendations aren't grounded in sound long-term planning.

'It's not so simple'

"I don't think we should be naive about this," Camfield said. "It's not so simple in the real world — you can't just say, 'We're going to shrink the public sector' and not have a negative impact on the quality and quantity of services [and the economy].

If that money is liberated for the more productive aspects of the economy, then that can have ... a vivifying effect on an economy.- Marco Navarro-Génie

"When you slash public sector jobs, you're also going to have higher unemployment. You then have less household spending, to less demand for goods and services," Camfield added.

Navarro-Génie said no one is talking about "slashing jobs," although Camfield contends whether or not the Frontier Centre and Atlantic Institute are recommending trimming via attrition or retirement, the study could be used by the Pallister government to justify cuts.

"What governments will do when they get advice like this, they take this kind of study as incentive to further cut spending on public services," Camfield said. 

"In this climate, where we already have a provincial government that's talking about an attack on public services, that will be the effect."

Why not Manitoba?

Navarro-Génie said there is no evidence that reducing the number of public servants by "a small percentage" will actually reduce the quality of services.

"No one is arguing that they should be abolished," Navarro-Génie said of public service jobs, "but there is a fundamental distinction between a public service job and a job that comes from the productive sector of the economy.

There's no debt crisis in Manitoba.- David Camfield

"If that money is liberated for the more productive aspects of the economy, then that can have not just a renewing effect on an economy, but sometimes a vivifying effect on an economy."

Navarro-Génie said the question is: if other provinces are able to deliver comparable health care, education and other services through their public sectors with fewer taxpayer-funded positions, then why can't Manitoba?

But Camfield said it isn't necessarily a problem that Manitoba has a higher percentage of civil servants than some other provinces.

Apples and oranges

Provinces with smaller populations generally have higher percentages of the overall workforce employed by the public sector when compared to larger jurisdictions, Camfield said. That's because things like government ministries require a certain amount of staff regardless of population size, he added.

"You're not comparing 'like' with 'like' when you're comparing large provinces to small provinces," he said.

Camfield said it's important to take a critical look at the relationship between Manitoba's provincial debt and the current conversation about public sector cuts that is going on at the provincial level.

"We're paying less as a percentage of provincial revenue now to service the debt than we were in the late '90s. That's a fact. So $1 billion only makes sense when you look at it in comparison to the overall size of the public sector and the interest rate being paid to service the debt."

"There's no debt crisis in Manitoba. I think we actually have to think about the fact that it's a rich country and we need to find ways of redistributing wealth to make sure people can have the quality of services they need."