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Lee HardingFormer Manitoba premier Brian Pallister might best be remembered as the Grinch who stole the 2020 Christmas, forbidding citizens from in-person shopping and gathering for the holiday.

However, he has another legacy, more like the Canadian Tire Christmas commercials that said, “Give like Santa, save like Scrooge.” Pallister was both Santa and Scrooge by restraining growth in the provincial civil service.

Manitoba’s politics was much different seven years ago. Stephen Harper’s Conservatives had been nine years in power federally and the NDP had ruled Manitoba for 14. According to Statistics Canada, Manitoba’s civilian federal government employees were paid $68.2 million in March 2015, slightly more than the $64.9 million paid to provincial government employees and the $64.1 million paid to municipal employees.

Then the script got flipped. The Liberals led by Justin Trudeau gained power in the fall of 2015, followed by the Pallister Progressive Conservatives in the spring of 2016 in Manitoba. One government adopted largesse, and the other embraced restraint.

At 27 percent of the whole economy, Manitoba still has a larger public sector than most provinces. Only Saskatchewan, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland have higher percentages. The difference now is how many more of Manitoba’s public service employees are federal.

In March 2022, employee pay for federal government administration in Manitoba totalled $114.4 million – a 67.9 percent increase from seven years earlier. Their provincial counterparts were paid $70 million, up just 7.9 percent, while municipal employee pay jumped 23.4 percent to $79.1 million. In the overall economy, wages and salaries grew 26.9 percent in Manitoba over that time.

How did federal pay grow like a cancer?

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The prime minister’s dismissal of balanced budgets is an important part of the answer. The budget doesn’t balance itself, but government departments sure do take care of themselves.

What department head ever got promoted by making his workforce smaller? None of them ever said, “Let’s not spend our allocated budget this year!” or “Let’s all work harder, so we don’t need so many people here!”

Unions also say, “More, more, more!” More employees equal more union dues. Higher salaries help the union kitty grow. Layoffs? No.

All these dynamics make the federal and provincial governments quiet about their differing approaches for equally differing reasons. No party leader ever won power saying, “We are going to hire ever more of your best and brightest to bury them in bureaucratic cubicles.” A premier who said, “We will cut your taxes,” might win, but if he declares open war on his civil service, he’ll have relentless opposition from his own workforce. A wiser approach is a low-key combination of attrition and minimal pay increases.

That was Pallister’s tack but perhaps not that of his successor Premier Heather Stefanson. With its oversized public sector, Manitoba should, at a minimum, aim to have just an average-sized public sector – not hard to do over a few more years.

Disappointingly, Statistics Manitoba shows the pay in provincial government administration grew 8.4 percent year-over-year in the first quarter of 2022. That was more than federal or municipal departments or the general economy.

Former U.S. president Ronald Reagan once said that the nine scariest words are, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” Sometimes less really is more. A referee who does their job well gets few complaints but little praise either.

All these statements apply to Pallister’s understated legacy. Yes, he cancelled Christmas, but he also shrunk government – and that was a gift, indeed.

Lee Harding is a research associate at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

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