Former Progressive Conservative cabinet minister and interim leader Jeannot Volpé and Bill Thompson, a former deputy energy minister and consultant, spoke frankly at a recent Telegraph-Journal editorial board about the need for fundamental change to fix the province’s current fiscal crisis.
Thompson, a veteran Tory insider and adviser, said that references to a structural deficit in New Brunswick mean the system has been built in a way that is not sustainable.
He suggested the province is top-heavy with bureaucrats, especially in health care.
“To give you an idea, in the last four years, 7,000 new public servants have been added to the system and 2,000 of them are in the health-care system, in the hospitals,” Thompson said.
“Where did they go? I can remember asking my family doctor how it was and he said, ‘Well, did you ever see the organizational chart at the hospital – it looks like the family tree for the royal family.’ He said it’s all management.”
The province’s public service employs close to 50,000 permanent and temporary workers, according to the most recent numbers from 2009.
The government’s Office of Human Resources says that from 2005 to 2009, there was a net increase in full- and part-time employees of about 3,600. That number reflects losses through attrition as well as new hires.
Department spokeswoman Heather Allaby could not confirm the 7,000 figure referred to by Thompson.
“While we are still receiving final data for the calendar year of 2010, there would be nothing in the figures we’ve seen throughout the year that would suggest we were approaching a 7,000-employee increase,” she said.
It is well-known that New Brunswick has one of the largest public services in Canada on a per capita basis.
Numbers provided by the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies in 2009 indicated that New Brunswick has 12.9 civil servants per 1,000 residents, compared to 9.3 in Nova Scotia. The province’s numbers looked especially bloated compared to those for provinces such as British Columbia (4.4 per 1,000), Ontario (4.9) and Alberta (7.8).
Although the former Liberal government promised to reduce the civil service and imposed a hiring freeze, it has continued to grow.
In 2008-09, the Liberal government announced it was reducing the civil service by 700 positions through attrition.
But according to government data, full-time and part-time civil servants actually rose in 2009 to 48,743 from 48,292 at the end of 2008.
In fact, the number of full-time and part-time civil servants has been climbing every year since Dec. 31, 2005, when it was 45,139.
Thompson said it is very difficult to rein in the growth.
“The best example is the one-per-cent cut this time,” he said. “Did you see anybody get laid off? No, you saw prescriptions cut, you saw doctors recruiting cut, you saw things that did not impact the FTEs – full-time equivalents.”
Thompson said the natural attrition rate in the civil service is declining because of the impact of the recession on retirement savings.
“Right now, there is nobody retiring because they’re all waiting for a package,” he said.
“Prior to 2008, the retirement rate was higher. But after 2008, the retirement rate flattened out because everyone’s personal savings went in the toilet.”
Volpé said that he does not personally believe that the Tory government can balance the budget purely by cutting expenses.
“The impact on New Brunswickers would be too huge,” he said. “We need to find some ways to bring revenues in.”
But Volpé said care has to be taken to make sure the focus is maintained on improving things such as patient care and the quality of education for students.
Volpé and Thompson are co-chairmen of the province’s new Energy Commission. They are charged with coming up with a long-term energy plan for the province.