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What -- and who -- is behind last week's U of C public sector pay fairy tale?

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Ken Boessenkool

Once upon a time, "in the last decade of the 20th century, Alberta became a paragon of fiscal virtue."

So begins a fairy tale spun by Ken Boessenkool and Ben Eisen, Alberta's equivalents of the Brothers Grimm.

Their fantasy story was treated by journalists with respectful kid gloves and a deceptive lack of background when it was released to the mainstream media last week by the so-called "School of Public Policy" at the University of Calgary.

Indeed, the National Post liked it so much, it practically copied the study's opening line for the opener of its editorial last Friday.

Alas, unlike the work of Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, the yarn spun by Boessenkool and Eisen is designed to obfuscate, not to illuminate.

As time goes on and the number-crunchers have a chance to pull at the threads of this colourful but poorly knitted sweater, many more flaws are certain to be revealed that cast doubt on its sensational conclusion that (as summarized by the Calgary Herald) "Alberta's public sector wage bill has increased nearly twice as fast as the national average over the past decade."

But the trouble with the reasoned responses that are sure to be made by the reality-based community, however, is that in the time-honoured fashion of the drivel produced by the right-wing "think tanks" for which both Boessenkool and Eisen have toiled, they have captured the headlines. The denials or explanations will all be second-day stories to which no one much will pay much attention.

As is clearly intended by the authors of sensational "studies" like this one, this leads lazy or innumerate journalists to conclusions that cannot be supported by the authors' arguments, but which nonetheless pass directly into the imagination of the public.

For example, consider this point from the National Post editorial noted above, which was written almost as if it were part of a co-ordinated campaign that began with the launch of this so-called study: "While wages for civil servants, nurses, teachers, police officers, firefighters and other public employees have increased 63 per cent across the country, they have risen by nearly twice that amount in Alberta."

This may seem like a nice distinction to some readers, but what even the authors' report says is that Alberta's total public sector wage bill has increased over the decade "nearly double" 63 per cent -- not necessarily a surprise in a fast-growing, high-cost province like Alberta. It does not say, as the Post fatuously implies and many members of the public will remember, that Alberta public employees' average wages have grown by that much.

I personally crunched the numbers for first-year nurses employed by public health-care facilities in Alberta in the same period and was forced to the conclusion that their wages had increased … wait for it … 63 per cent! (See the national average, above.)

According to a fact-heavy news release put out Monday by the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, which represents direct employees of the provincial government, negotiated wages for its members who work for the government rose only 49 per cent in the same period, which happens to be identical to the increase in the Alberta Average Weekly Earnings calculated by Statistics Canada. What's more, the number of AUPE members doing these jobs barely changed over the 10 years while Alberta's population skyrocketed.

The Post also made much of the fact -- quelle horreur! -- that some registered nurses earn as much as $80,000 a year when their overtime is calculated in. So what's wrong with that, one wonders? RNs are highly trained medical professionals on whom your life may depend -- and it's the almighty international market that normally sets the hard little hearts of guys like Boessenkool a-pitter-patter that regulates what nurses' time is worth. (The Post also implied the nurses' union had just negotiated these overtime provisions. Not true. The same provisions were in place back when Alberta was a paragon of fiscal virtue.)

So if all this is the case, assuming that Boessenkool's and Eisen's basic numbers are correct, how could the public sector wage bill have "shot up" 119 per cent between 2000 and 2010 when it obviously wasn't the wages of ordinary public sector workers doing the shooting up?

Perhaps it was because Boessenkool and Eisen don't seem to have accounted for inflation in the figures they used, a reasonable calculation that would have shrunk their sensational estimates by about 20 per cent across the board.

Perhaps it was because they rolled in the huge salaries and bonuses that were paid to senior government of Alberta managers. Managerial bonuses alone added up to $44 million a year in the period, according to Liberal MLA Hugh MacDonald. But Boessenkool and Eisen made no effort to break out such management perks, using a definition of salary that included, among other things, such non-working-class benefits as taxable allowances, bonuses, commissions and income in kind.

Perhaps it was the result of the big pay cuts that all Alberta public employees took the decade before. Except judges, of course, who are presumably also included in Boessenkool's and Eisen's numbers.

Perhaps it was in part the impact of the fact women and new Canadians are paid the same wage as everyone else when they do the same work in the public sector, but are systemically taken advantage of if they work for private companies.

All this remains to be seen when more sophisticated number-crunchers have a go at Boessenkool's and Eisen's conclusions. But will anyone notice if the media doesn't bother to cover their analysis with the same enthusiasm it reported their claims of "astonishing growth" in public sector pay?

At this point, much of the Alberta media is too busy running biased polls designed to elicit a predictable response as part of their open campaign for the Wildrose Party, which naturally has jumped on the report's dubious conclusions as a way to attack Premier Alison Redford and her Progressive Conservative government stewardship over the past decade.

You just have to know, people, that the publicity generated by this report isn't going to be used to attack the obscene salaries of Alberta's vast corps of deputy ministers, assistant deputy ministers and public health sector vice-presidents and directors!

No, it's intended to be used as part of a co-ordinated campaign to push back the modest salaries, benefits and bargaining rights of ordinary working people in the public sector -- and, by extension, to attack those in the private sector as well.

This may explain the media's strange reluctance to inform its readers and listeners just who Boessenkool and Eisen are.

Not only has Boessenkool worked for various far-right "think tanks," including the thoroughly discredited Fraser Institute (where he obviously learned his lessons well), he has been a strategist for Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Office, a corporate lobbyist, the chair of a committee designed to engineer a reverse takeover of the Alberta Tories by the Wildrose Party, and is now Chief of Staff to B.C. Premier Christy Clark, head of a neo-Con coalition that only calls itself Liberal. Of himself, he says: "I came out of the womb right-wing."

With Harper and Academician Tom Flanagan, who this week was revealed to be the mastermind behind the green curtain working the bells and whistles of the Wildrose Party's election campaign, Boessenkool was also a signatory to the famously Alberta separatist Firewall Manifesto.

Eisen is cut from the same piece of cloth, most recently as a propagandist for the Winnipeg-based faux-Fraser-Institute Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

But there's nary a word of all this in the Post's editorial, which fails to even mention the names of the report's authors. It was passed over suspiciously lightly in other coverage by the media.

Look, it's still a free country. If the University of Calgary and its "School of Public Policy" want to pass off this kind of ideological tripe as academic research and generally act like another right-wing think tank, there's not much that can be done about it.

But they should have the decency to refuse the taxpayer dollars that pay for their operations and fund many of their propagandists' public pensions. If they're so hot to make cuts to the public sector, they couldn't pick a better place to start than their own front doorstep!

And is it too much to ask that the mainstream media stop acting like their junior auxiliary, check their facts and try to answer the most obvious questions?

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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