Some habits are hard to break
McGuinty says government will ‘address’ PS salaries, with few specifics
By lee greenberg, The Ottawa Citizen
TORONTO – Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty says his special relationship with unions, based on “respect and collaboration” – and large pay increases – will help him rein in public sector salaries in upcoming negotiations.
McGuinty said those salaries, which make up more than half of all government spending, will be a major focus as Ontario tries to dig itself out of a $16-billion deficit.
“It’s simply not possible to reduce spending without addressing salary expenditures,” McGuinty told a business crowd at a luncheon speech in downtown Toronto Tuesday.
The Liberal leader warned unions to hold their demands in check, saying the province will negotiate “firmly” and “responsibl(y)”.
McGuinty has presided over generous increases to a broad array of public sector workers, including roughly 25 per cent to teachers, who now earn, on average, $83,500 annually. His government gave even larger increases to doctors, including a 25 per cent bonus to family physicians who joined a group practice. Those doctors now earn between $376,000 and $407,000 annually.
After the speech, McGuinty told reporters he will not impose a wage freeze on unions as is being demanded by the Progressive Conservative party. He did not specify what wage increases his government considers reasonable.
He did say, however, that he believes he has an advantage over other leaders in upcoming negotiations.
“I’m hoping that the foundation of respect and collaboration and measurable progress that we have laid during the first eight years puts me in a good position so when I go to my teachers, my doctors, my nurses and everybody else in the public sector and say ‘listen folks, we need to do this’… I’m hoping they’ll receive that with an open mind,” he said.
Conservative MPP Peter Shurman said McGuinty had won the goodwill from unions “by giving away the candy store for the past eight years.”
“We’ll see how far that goodwill lasts,” he said.
Among other large groups, the province is bargaining with its 25,000 doctors whose salaries account for $10 billion annually.
One of the most vocal union voices in the province, Sid Ryan, said many workers will have a hard time tempering their demands despite the appeal from McGuinty.
Ryan, president of the Ontario Federation of Labour, pointed to frontline hospital employees who work under some of the highest-paid workers in the province
“Then to turn around to frontline workers and say ‘you’ve got to moderate your demands’. That’s not on,” he said. “We’ve always been reasonable, but it really depends on the workplace. You can’t just say across the board, unions will reduce our wage demands.”
Ontario’s government is attempting to live up to its promise of balancing the province’s massive $16 billion deficit by 2017. At the same time, it is dealing with shrinking revenue and crippling debt servicing charges that amount to $10 billion annually.
McGuinty and Finance Minister Dwight Duncan last year turned to former TD Bank chief economist Don Drummond to advise them on potential spending reforms.
The government is preparing to release that report next month. It contains roughly 400 recommendations, several of which have been made public.
Drummond will recommend, for example, moving gambling to more central locations, hiking alcohol prices and rejigging cash registers to prevent tax theft. He will also recommend consolidating some ministries and overhauling others.
Health care, which accounts for 70 per cent of the government budget by 2030, will not escape.
Drummond believes certain medical procedures are unnecessary, including arthroscopic knee surgery (which simply delays knee replacement by one year), while others, like caesarean sections, are performed too often.
McGuinty said Tuesday that Health Minister Deb Matthews will unveil the government’s plan to reorder health care “shortly.”
Critics like Shurman say McGuinty shouldn’t be trusted to implement reform, however, considering the Liberal government has hiked spending by 66 per cent - or nearly $50 billion – since McGuinty took office in 2003.
Shurman said for the past eight years, McGuinty “has held the shovel while digging Ontario into the biggest hole it’s ever been in.”
“And now he’s saying we all have to work together to get out of it,” he said. “He’s suddenly found religion where the deficit is concerned.”