Chris Aylward

"We have never needed unions more"

Kevin Page.jpg

The former Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page is back in the news. Installed by Stephen Harper in 2008 as a gesture towards Parliamentary transparency, Page quickly found himself at odds with the Conservative government when he actually took the job seriously. Despite withholding both funds and essential data from his office, however, the government was unable to prevent Page from continuing to do his work conscientiously. Namecalling was their only option, until they were able to replace him earlier this year.

But Page did not go quietly into the night. Instead, he secured a job at the University of Ottawa that would, in essence, continue his earlier work in public policy. This proved to be sufficiently alarming that he became the target of new attacks—like this one, from Philip Cross, a former economist at Statistics Canada who now works for the right-wing but charitable Macdonald-Laurier Institute. Allegedly, it’s unethical for Page to compete with the PBO to hire qualified employees—an odd position for a defender of the free market to take, but there you go.

In any case, Page has emerged as a defender of unions, which, even given his fearless critiques of government secrecy and phoney estimates was not necessarily a given. He has recently been the recipient, for example, of an award from the Canadian Taxpayers Federation—no friends of ours. But as it turns out, Page sees unions as indispensable partners in the “ground-up” public service renewal he would like to see.

Older members will recall that public service renewal has been a thing for quite a long time now, and has been mostly a top-down exercise with some perfunctory consultation along the way—far more consultation, admittedly, than we have had with the Harper government, but not exactly a partnership.

But Page argues that federal public service unions can galvanize our memberships to get behind public service renewal and take an ethical stance that favours public service transparency.

Page said the mandate of unions extends beyond collective bargaining. They defend labour and human rights and promote professional standards and values, which “gives them the opportunity to help develop a bottom-up renewal exercise and create that discussion.”

“We have never needed unions more,” said Page. “Union survival may mean doing things a different way and not just about the right to strike, fighting for disability benefits and wage increases. They can raise credibility in a different way.”

He said unions can speak out for their members and also about the obligations of professional public servants to provide the information Parliament needs to do its job.

Page believes that public workers have a role, or as he puts it, a mission, to help deliver good governance to Canadians. His own PBO staff, he says, carried on despite “intimidation from the government and senior bureaucrats. Doing their jobs for Canadians was more important than self preservation in an environment that is becoming more toxic.”

Unions, in other words, could assist substantially with an overall bottom-to-top renewal of the public service, were that ever to occur. And in part, as Page sees it, the unions are there to encourage their members to carry out their duties fearlessly in the face of attempted political interference. One can speculate about precisely what that might mean in practical terms, but a strong defence of those who blow the whistle on unethical government practices is obviously a key part of our work.

It’s good to have a strong voice defending us and even calling for an expanded role, even if that voice is no longer heard on Parliament Hill. Meanwhile, however, the secrecy continues, and proposed sweeping changes to labour legislation threaten our union’s abilities to represent our members, as well as the fundamental workplace rights of more than a million Canadian workers.

Was Page’s battle in vain? As noted, he will continue to speak out publicly. He makes a lot of sense. But good sense alone, as we know from bitter experience under the present government, is never enough—proof by itself that unions have never been needed more, as we prepare ourselves for what’s to come.

[Photo credit: Sean Kilpatrick, Canadian Press]

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This page contains a single entry by Chris Aylward published on November 12, 2013 8:30 AM.

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