Balancing the Budget: Just a Pretense?

Balancing the budget is at the heart of governmental discourse, but it’s only a pretense that has nothing to do with most initiatives implemented for its sake. The true aim is not to save money, but to pursue the state’s transformation initiated under Jean Charest, i.e. managing public services like a private business. The deficit is used only as a scarecrow to allow for the imposition of the desired measures.

In fact, the deficit which the government had to eliminate was much smaller than it had stated at the beginning of its term. For this past year, a $1.1b deficit needed to be cut, not the full $5.5b as announced in 2014. Ianik Marcil illustrates this beautifully by reminding that if the government has a $50,000 budget, its deficit would stand at a mere $564.

Which measures allowed the government to eliminate this rather tiny deficit? Mainly cutting public employees’ pay checks. Indeed, on November 25, 2014, Finance Minister Martin Coiteux announced that there would be more than a thousand jobs in public service abolished on top of $689m pay cuts. That goes a long way towards saving money for the state. Coiteux intends to keep on saving on the backs of his employees with the two-year wage freeze he’s proposing.

All the other reforms implemented by the government pale in comparison to the attacks on its employees. The day care fee increase? A mere $193m according to the last budget. Healthcare reform? Maybe $220m, but not just yet, only in 2017 when the budget will have been balanced for three years. Municipal pension plans? Those might bring very meagre savings since the government greatly overestimated their deficit. As for school board mergers, they could yield “up to” $26m in savings, which is still more than the $8m saved from shutting down the ministry of Education’s regional directions.

These reforms are designed to change the state, not to save money. What does changing the state entail? Let’s look at healthcare. “Lean thinking” prescribes timing all tasks and chastising employees when they take too long to care for patients. Then activity-based funding will force managers to become very creative to maximize their profit margin, from applying pressure to employing mean tricks. Finally, bill 10 has centralized power in the hands of the Health Minister and those managing huge institutions, thereby removing it from the hands of those who work directly with patients.

Overall, here’s the project: work is organized as in a factory, managers compete one against the other for who squeezes the most out of his or her employees, and they are overlooked by all-powerful bosses. Do not be mistaken: if public services become assembly lines, there’s a good chance you’ll end up being treated like a car wreck in dire need of repair.

This article was written by Simon Tremblay-Pepin, a researcher with IRIS—a Montreal-based progressive think tank.

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