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  (Curtis Lantinga)

 

(Curtis Lantinga)

MARGARET WENTE

Margaret Wente: Exposing the blackest holes in Ottawa Add to ...

Who’s the most feared and hated man in Ottawa? That’s easy. It’s Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page, scourge of waste and boondoggles, champion of truth and justice. You may think he’s just a scrawny, bald accountant. But he’s really the avenging angel of the beleaguered taxpayer.

Take those F-35s – the coolest toys for boys since Star Wars. They’re stealthy and invisible, but they’re not cheap. In 2010, the government said they would cost $16-billion. Last year, Mr. Page warned that the total cost would be close to $30-billion. He called the procurement process “completely broken.”

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Naturally, the Conservatives struck back hard. Generals and bureaucrats struck back, too. They attacked Mr. Page’s credibility. They said he didn’t know what he was talking about. But it turned out he was being modest. Now an outside auditor’s report says those jets will really cost $45.8-billion. Within moments of the report’s release on Wednesday, the government announced a “reset.”

No wonder the Conservatives loathe Mr. Page. Stephen Harper has staked his reputation on prudent management and fiscal responsibility. And Mr. Page’s job is to expose the gaping black holes of government – the ones that suck in money the way galactic black holes suck in light.

Why do we need these fighter jets, anyway? I don’t have a clue. If Defence Minister Peter MacKay has a clue, he’s not telling. Maybe he thinks we might have to bomb the Chinese. It’s also not clear why he thinks this super-duper advanced stealth technology will be good for 40 years. At the rate the world is changing, this plane will be obsolete by the time the paint is dry.

Mr. Page is also right about the process. Entire books have been written to explain why military procurement in Canada so often goes so wrong. Yet, the problem seems beyond the capacity of governments to fix. As one defence insider told me, “Just about the only procurement program we haven’t screwed up was when we bought new coffee mugs.”

This week, the avenging angel struck again. Mr. Page issued a new report on public-service compensation costs. He found that, over the past decade, the total wage bill for the federal civil service has nearly doubled. It’s now nearly $44-billion – which amounts to $1,275 per Canadian in federal personnel costs alone.

Needless to say, the government doesn’t want you to hear this message, either. On Wednesday, Treasury Board President Tony Clement called Mr. Page’s numbers “inflated.”

“It’s like a fighter jet program every year,” James Lahey, an expert on the subject of federal pay, told me. He says public-sector pay is a “black box” that only a handful of high priests understand. The government has vowed to hold the line on costs. But the spiralling cost of public-sector compensation is mysterious, opaque and seemingly impervious to reform.

Fighter jets make the front page because they make for sexy scandals. Public servants’ pay scales are extremely dull. But both cost piles of money – yours. While nobody was looking, total compensation for federal bureaucrats has stealthily crept up to $114,000 a year on average (including salary, benefits and pension costs). Their pay has grown faster than that of any other employee group in Canada, public or private. Mr. Page warns that, by 2015, their average compensation could reach $130,000.

Mr. Lahey once wrote an exhaustive report on compensation reform that was totally ignored. “In public administration, there are subjects that are complex, difficult and icky, and people don’t really want to deal with them,” he told me. No one has any idea if we’re getting value for our $44-billion, because no one is sure what we want those bureaucrats to do. “There needs to be a public discussion on what kind of public service we need, anyway.”

Defence procurement is also complex, difficult and icky. Even the Americans are choking at the cost of the F-35s, and now it looks as if a large part of the program could fall off the fiscal cliff. Stephen Harper should forget about the reset button, and press the eject button.

 

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