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Rob Shaw: Public service balloons under BC NDP great at growing government

More than 10,000 hired in their six years in power
The provincial government has certainly been good for its own job market, argues Rob Shaw.

When the B.C. government released its latest fiscal update two weeks ago, most of the attention was focused on the rising debt and deficit levels. But buried deep within the books was a different trend line, one that’s costing taxpayers billions of dollars and accelerating at a staggering rate — government hiring. 

The New Democrat government continues to sharply grow the size of the civil service, the new figures show. 

By next year’s election, the number of full-time equivalent government staff will have risen more than 31 per cent since the NDP took power in 2017. In the six years prior, it only increased 3.9 per cent. 

That means New Democrats will have hired more than 10,850 new FTEs in six years, swelling the ranks of the core civil service to 45,217 FTEs. 

“There’s just been a massive increase in the size of the public sector in core services,” said BC United critic Todd Stone. 

“And by almost every significant measure, the results British Columbians are getting in return are worse.” 

The NDP government has long argued its hiring spree is necessary due to a shortage of teachers, nurses, doctors, long-term care aides and more. But those positions aren’t counted in the 31 per cent growth in core government, they are part of a larger 500,000-person “public sector,” which is also ballooning but not tracked by the province’s financial updates. 

Instead, the enormous growth we’re talking about is centred in areas like: Ministry program development, front-line government staffers, the employment standards branch, the residential tenancy branch, CleanBC policy development, cannabis legalization and the civil resolution tribunal. 

There are currently more than 41,442 FTEs in those, and other, core government areas, with another 3,081 expected to be hired this year alone. 

“We’re running a massive deficit, taxes have gone up dramatically, the debt has doubled in six and a half years, none of this is sustainable,” said Stone. 

Some growth makes sense, such as 300 FTEs this year for the wildfire service, as the province battles not only the worst season on record but attempts to move to a year-round model. Or, new staff at new government-run childcare facilities. 

Other growth is questionable, such as 175 FTEs for “natural resource permitting staff” when permitting wait times are unimpressive. 

And some of it remains mysterious, such as 600 FTEs “for other Budget 2023 priorities” which could mean anyone and anything the New Democrats please. 

Many of the jobs inside core government are unionized, swelling the ranks of NDP-friendly public sector labour groups like the BC General Employees’ Union. 

There are economic implications to the perpetual hiring spree as well. 

B.C.’s economy is slowing, due to high interest rates and global uncertainty, according to the latest financial figures. The public sector shed jobs in the first quarter of the financial year as things rebalanced, according to the figures, but the B.C. government just ploughed forward with its hiring, unabated, distorting the province’s own labour data. 

“Where is the private-sector jobs plan?” said Stone. “The private sector overall hasn’t been growing nearly as fast.” 

One area of massive growth inside core government is called the “service delivery agencies,” where hiring is forecast to grow at a rate of 33 per cent this year.  

The Ministry of Finance attributes the rise in this area since 2017 to hiring at BC Housing, BC Transit, Community Living BC, the Family Maintenance Agency and its political union-only construction program. 

If there’s any worry inside the government at the rapid pace of hiring, the New Democrats aren’t showing it. Meanwhile, B.C.’s deficit forecast has jumped almost $2 billion to $6.7 billion this year. 

Finance Minister Katrine Conroy said in late September that now is not the time to cut government spending.  

“We recognize that you need to invest in people in order to have a strong economy, and that's what we're going to continue to do,” she said. 

Investing in people, it appears, also involves hiring thousands of them to work for the government. 

Rob Shaw has spent more than 15 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, host of the weekly podcast Political Capital, and a regular guest on CBC Radio. [email protected]