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Not content with putting the civil service on rations for the next three years, the Campbell government is seeking to impose a diet on its broader public sector.

This week's budget offered no clues of what savings the B.C. government's planned review of Crown corporations and other government bodies aims to achieve. One wouldn't want to prejudge the findings, after all.

But there are ambitious targets to be met: essentially, zero growth of government spending. Add the unpopular changes needed to meet those targets, and these reviews promise a rigorous, even enthusiastic, hunt for excess.

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Last week, the government announced its plan to scrutinize the finances of its agencies - including school boards and health authorities - implying that its own bean counters can uncover waste that those agencies haven't the wit or the will to find on their own.

The details are still under wraps, but there is a ready model in reviews launched this summer into the financial workings of the public transportation agencies TransLink and BC Ferries.

The authority for those reviews comes under the province's Financial Administration Act. Cheryl Wenezenki-Yolland, the province's Comptroller-General, has the power to go in and look at the books of any Crown or subsidiary to ensure value for public dollars.

But when the province launched the first round of reviews late in July, her mandate revealed something of an obsession with executive pay levels.

Her twin reviews, due at the end of this month, are intended to "improve transparency and public accountability for decisions and performance levels."

Vague enough, but more explicit are the instructions to:

- "Protect ratepayers' interests with minimal administration costs, including hard caps on compensation levels for senior executives and board members."

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- Look at the "size, composition, appointment process and compensation for the board of directors."

Finance Minister Colin Hansen has already confirmed that the thorny issue of executive pay is on the radar, feeding into the populist notion that the public service is packed with fat cats who don't do a lick of work to earn their keep.

It's a tempting target for a beleaguered government that is still being hammered for raising MLAs' salaries and hiking wages for top civil servants.

Premier Gordon Campbell was paid $188,000 last year. BC Hydro alone had 137 employees earning more than him, including a top trader at its subsidiary Powerex who pulled down $668,000. (The traders' earnings are based on commissions, but how will government decide what is reasonable?)

New Democratic Party Leader Carole James slammed the reviews last week as little more than witch hunts. But she might want to look back to the last government that went on a similar pursuit.

"We are accountable for our spending decisions, but someone else actually makes the decisions about spending . … It confounds democracy." That was NDP finance minister Glen Clark in 1992, who ordered a similar audit.

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But what happens if Ms. Wenezenki-Yolland concludes that BC Ferries' president David Hahn is not worth the million bucks he collected last year? Or that TransLink can in fact provide adequate public transportation in Metro Vancouver without the extra $450-million it says it needs?

The two agencies responded when the reviews were launched with a barely veiled: "You're not the boss of me." Oh, they agreed to submit to the review and have opened their books to Ms. Wenezendi-Yolland's team. But both also publicly reminded the government they will take her findings as suggestions, not orders.

In a wordless rebuttal, the Campbell government offered Tourism BC as an example of what defiance might bring. The Crown agency is being axed, its work handed over to the Ministry of Tourism.

Mr. Hansen said that fate could befall any agency if he decides his government could do things better.

"If it's better to make sure we have a cohesive and consolidated approach to delivering services by ensuring those are delivered by line ministries, then we will do that."

Against that backdrop, the Crowns are preparing to defend themselves.

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This week, TransLink began honing its arguments at a Rotary Club function where officials rolled out a PowerPoint presentation that shows it meets or exceeds benchmarks for service and controlling operating costs.

BC Hydro readily offered up an explanation that its salaries fall within the mid-range of compensation paid to other management, professional and technical employees in the Canadian utility sector.

On a $40-billion budget, it is hard to imagine the province will reap much savings by making an example of some high-paid executives. But it might serve as a delicious distraction from an unpopular new tax and discontent over service cuts.

How accommodating will the subjects of these review be? That may be measured when it is over by how many heads will be displayed on pikes alongside Tourism BC's.

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