Tony Clement

Desperate to divert public attention from Mike “The Puffster” Duffy’s expense account exploits and the arrest by Panamanian authorities of the fellow who not so long ago ran the watchdog overseeing Canada’s spy agency, the Harper Government has turned to that hardy perennial of conservative diversionary tactics: union bashing.

Well, the pandas didn’t work. Any old port in a storm, I guess.

With problem employees like the Puffster, overly generous former prime ministerial chief of staff Nigel Wright  and Arthur Porter, who was apparently on the lam from a corruption investigation in Quebec when he turned up in Panama using a Sierra Leonean diplomatic passport, you can sort of see why the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper might suddenly be enamoured of the idea of performance reviews for civil servants.

Not if you were really paying attention, of course. Alas, Senator Duffy, Wright and Dr. Porter are not the sort of fellows our Reform Party government are so impatient with. No, dammit, they hate the rank-and-file union members who actually do all the work!

Being sneaky, if not really what you’d call subtle, the Harperites trotted out ever-reliable Treasury Board President Tony Clement to vow that the federal government will introduce performance reviews for more than 200,000 federal civil servants.

And if they don’t shape up, buy gar, they’ll be fired, Clement told a luncheon in Toronto in a speech that someone took care to ensure yesterday fell into the hands of just about everyone in the country with a press card, or even a shadow where the one on their hat used to be parked.

The Conservative hope, naturally, is that the union leaders — “union bosses,” as they are termed in the approved parlance of media bosses and political bosses — will froth at the mouth about the injustice of it all and the NDP Opposition will get up on its hind legs in the House of Commons and assail the government, forgetting Duffygate in their excitement.

If that happens, of course, the Conservatives can later run nasty attack ads saying the NDP are in bed with the union bosses, some of them anyway, while the Liberals are downtown leaving trails of pixie dust wherever they go.

So as a union boss myself — declared so by no less an authority than Sun News Network commentator Ezra Levant — my advice is for everyone to stay calm and keep the Puffster and the other gentlemen noted above in the metaphorical crosshairs.

There are a number of reasons for this, but the greatest of these is that — notwithstanding Clement’s feigned anguish at the fact Canada’s public service doesn’t have a sufficiently horrible a record for unjustly firing employees — no one’s ever been fired for a lousy performance review.

Well, I exaggerate for effect. Let’s just say almost no one.

Clement blames unions for this state of affairs. For my part, I would credit them for the same thing.

Je digresse, but it is for the same reason that Canada’s public service doesn’t have as nasty a record as the broad private sector — including, presumably, such bastions of private sector enlightenment as fast-food stores, fly-by-night roofing companies and the drearier sorts of drinking establishments — for sexual harassment, non-payment of wages and outright physical assault.

While Clement works on putting this state of affairs to right, the rest of us can remember that the idea behind performance reviews — at least the official human resources doctrine — is that they provide employees with an opportunity to know what the problems are, if any, and improve themselves before they get canned.

Just as often, of course, on those rare occasions when performance reviews actually get done, they are subjective and inaccurate — and usually have no mechanism to challenge mistakes.

Still, in a society of laws — and as much as it galls Harper and his neoconservative cronies, Canada is still that — it takes attention, paperwork and “performance management” to fire someone in most workplaces, and that’s just too much work for the majority of managers, which is the real reason lousy employees hang around most workplaces too long.

For those naive souls who blame unions for this state of affairs, they should think carefully about what would happen if there were no unions to do the heavy lifting: they’d be sued by tens of thousands of pissed-off employment lawyers, every one a member of their own political party!

Well, getting back to reality, the two real reasons performance reviews of 200,000-plus civil servants will never get done is because they’re just too much work and because it would cost too much.

This is what always happens when employers vow to regularly review their employees’ work, the better to keep them in line. Overworked middle managers don’t get around to filling out the reviews because they don’t have time.

Clement has promised there will be mandatory written performance objectives for all employees, a mid-year evaluation, a written performance assessment at the end of the fiscal year and clear guidelines on how to improve output.

Well, good luck to him and the people charged with the job of completing those more than 800,000 separate pieces of paperwork!

Do you have any idea how much 200,000 unneeded performance reviews a year alone are going to cost, never mind the mid-year evaluations and end-of-year assessments? Trust me, it won’t be cheap. And the ranks of management will have to swell dramatically to achieve this yearly goal.

In other words, it’ll never happen. Messrs. Harper and Clement are just trying to get up union noses to get everyone to forget about Senator Duffy, Ninety-Thousand-Dollar Nigel and a spy agency watchdog with troubles serious enough to make him an obvious security risk.

Still, on the bright side, there may be the outlines of a solution in all this to what Clement claims is upsetting him. Lousy performers in the public service still won’t be fired, but now they can be promoted.

After all, plenty of managerial bludges will be needed to fill out the paperwork on their more capable colleagues.

And the really, truly terrible ones — who are not that common, because long before Clement came along the Public Service of Canada had standards, even if the Tory Party doesn’t — can be made Senators, prime ministerial chiefs of staff and overseers of national spy agencies.

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

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...