After yielding the silly train to the Opposition these past months, the Yukon Liberals jumped back on board the Partisan Snark Express last week with a disingenuous Twitter attack on Yukon Party critic Brad Cathers.
The government and Opposition had gone toe to toe in the legislature after it was revealed that the Yukon’s public service would be expanding by 201.5 full time equivalent positions in 2017. Cathers was critical of that growth following so closely as it did on the heels of a budget projecting continued financial decline for territorial coffers over the next several years.
The Yukon Liberal caucus shot back, tweeting that it was “[d]isappointed to hear @BradCathers criticize YG employees” — a line of attack presumably designed to curry favour with that politically powerful bloc of voters working for the Yukon government.
So did Brad Cathers actually criticize Yukon government employees? Hardly.
Cathers’ remarks, which the Liberals quoted, about how “the ballooning of Department of Finance is a total waste of money,” related specifically to news that the department would be hiring 10.6 new full-time equivalents and see a substantial increase in its personnel budget.
Only by a very wild stretch could this be called a criticism of Yukon government employees. It was obviously a criticism of the Liberal’s priorities at a time when we face the prospect of borrowing to finance continued growth in government — a criticism I am inclined to agree with.
But more disappointing than the partisan sniping that took place were statements from the government suggesting that it has taken any sort of cuts to the Yukon’s public service off the table as a means of bringing its expenditures in line with revenues. In my view, this was a hasty and ill-advised position for the new government to take. The public service, after all, is a massive part of the territorial budget — over a third of its overall spending — and if cuts are off the table as a way to trim costs the remaining options to get the budget back in balance are rather limited.
To be clear, this isn’t a call for any sort of across-the-board cuts. But if you truly believe there is no fat to trim, I know a few current and former government employees that the bean counters ought to take for coffee to hear about what their work days looked like.
We have a big problem in the Yukon that doesn’t have a single, simple solution. Despite receiving a billion dollars in federal transfers we inexplicably can’t seem to make ends meet anymore — a truly remarkable feat if you think about it.
Unfortunately we seem to be headed in the opposite direction with more new hires, and if that is going to be the case the government ought to expect questions about whether those new hires are justified.
The Liberals noted that most of the new hires for 2017-18 are in the Department of Education. Since education is an important government function I’d be inclined to give the government some benefit of the doubt that growth in spending in that area is worthwhile. But I also haven’t seen the opening of any new schools lately and consequently a large one year jump of 135.71 employees does make one wonder what all these new people will be doing.
Moving to the new hires at the Department of Finance that sparked this latest round of snark, the Liberals justified the expansion on the basis that investing in the Department of Finance would lead to “more capacity, Yukon-specific info and more accurate budgeting to show true cost of government.”
Opposition critic Cathers was not convinced by that rationale and nor am I. Not only is it difficult to comprehend why we need such a large “investment” to gather this information; at a time when we should be tightening our belts the question needs to be asked whether the value of having that information actually justifies what we will pay for it.
It is difficult to envision what dividends such information will pay to warrant referring to it as an investment. What level of precision in financial projection is necessary before we experience some diminishing returns?
The staff increases at the finance department may have been the focus in question period but they were not the only ones that ought to raise opposition eye brows. The Public Service Commission — which exists solely to service the government’s human resources needs — will see a whopping 8.5 per cent increase in its personnel budget this year. And despite the promise of a less adversarial approach and less litigation, the Yukon government somehow found the cash in its budget to boost spending on its own lawyers by a pretty solid 7.5 per cent meanwhile, money earmarked for “Community Legal Support,” which includes underfunded Legal Aid and the Law Line, will grow by only 2.2 per cent.
Drill down on some of the budget numbers and it doesn’t inspire much hope that the Liberals are taking our financial situation seriously as it seems to be business as usual with more spending on more staff — particularly miscellaneous bureaucrats and not frontline service providers.
Meanwhile, the modicum of restraint from this new government is being felt outside the ranks of the public service. Yukon small businesses won’t see the elimination of the small business tax promised by the Liberals in the last territorial election. And those who rely on government capital projects for their livelihood will pay as well as projections after this year suggest a reduction in the capital budget meaning fewer construction jobs.
Where are the snarky tweets on those?
Kyle Carruthers is a born-and-raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.