Nigel Wright, the Prime Minister’s former chief of staff, will be paid severance after resigning from his job – a benefit available to few Canadians and one the Conservative government is ending for public servants.
While the government criticized “voluntary severance” for public servants and began terminating the policy through collective bargaining in 2011, it has kept in place benefits that are twice as generous for political aides who work for the Prime Minister or cabinet ministers.
In a speech last year, Treasury Board President Tony Clement said he was eliminating severance for public servants who “quit,” because it is among “things that may not have made economic sense for a long time, but have been so ingrained that we never questioned them.”
Ottawa is paying about $6-billion in built-up public-sector severance under previous contracts, but the government expects it will ultimately save taxpayers $500-million a year.
The rule change for affected public servants means they can no longer receive severance equal to one week of salary for every year they worked for the federal government. However the government chose not to touch a similar policy for ministerial staff.
Under the Policies for Ministers’ Offices, Mr. Wright and other ministerial staff are entitled to receive severance worth two weeks’ salary for every year worked regardless of why they are leaving. They can also receive “separation pay” worth up to six months’ salary for employees who have worked for more than four years. That added benefit is not available for public servants and is meant to compensate for the volatile nature of working for ministers who could be shuffled or defeated.
The Prime Minister’s Office says Mr. Wright will not receive this additional separation pay. However the government is refusing to disclose Mr. Wright’s severance amount or his salary, which would assist in estimating his severance. Prime Minister Stephen Harper said this week that the government is required to pay “certain amounts under law” and that “Mr. Wright will be paid only those amounts of money.”
A government official said the legal amounts refer to the two weeks per year of severance, plus any vacation pay that is owed. Mr. Wright worked in the PMO for about 2 1/2 years.
Executive pay scales suggest Mr. Wright could have earned about $177,000 a year, though it’s possible the amount is much higher. At $177,000, his severance would be about $17,000, plus a payout for vacation pay.
Gregory Thomas, federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, said the government is right to eliminate voluntary severance for public servants, but should do the same for political staff.
“It’s startling that they haven’t done it already,” he said.
The existence of voluntary severance for ministerial staff also came as a surprise to Chris Aylward, national executive vice-president for the Public Service Alliance of Canada.
“It’s a double standard,” he said. “It’s obviously hypocritical to impose austerity measures on the public service while treating the ministerial staff to special benefits.”
The NDP pointed out that when in opposition in 2005, Mr. Harper criticized the Liberal government for paying severance to the former head of the Canadian Mint.
“The Prime Minister is still negotiating a severance package with David Dingwall, this in spite of the fact that not a single expert has come forward to say that there is an entitlement to severance when one quits a job,” Mr. Harper said in 2005.
NDP MP Mathieu Ravignat said it doesn’t make sense to have two sets of rules.
“They’re attacking public servants’ severance packages and yet they’re not willing to follow their own rules and their standards and take a look at themselves,” he said, adding that the government should disclose Mr. Wright’s severance.
“There’s just no transparency,” he said. “They’re dodging this question.”