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Getting value for money in our public service

Public service workers are bracing themselves as the territorial budget comes down this week

On May 24, the finance minister will present the GNWT’s budget for the 2024-25 fiscal year.

Based on the wishy-washy language the minister used when asked about potential job cuts back in February, public service workers are bracing themselves.

A lot of employers like to paint unionists as greedy and unrealistic regarding spending. But unions spend a lot of time and energy advocating for solutions that balance job security with fiscal responsibility. Cutting positions – like using agency nurses on a regular basis – is a quick fix that does way more harm in the long run.

We regularly hear from our union members that staff shortages and vacancies are creating unmanageable workloads, and our members are worried about the impacts potential cuts would have on resources that are already stretched thin. 

NWT residents continue to experience increasing interruptions and reductions of the services they rely on, whether it’s being sent south for routine healthcare services, delays in critical infrastructure repairs, or increasingly long wait times for appointments and approvals.

Providing timely and efficient government services requires adequate capacity and resourcing. Job cuts put more pressure on workers who are already overwhelmed and burnt out, leading to more turnover and even longer wait times.

Many public service workers are at their tipping point, and if the government announces job cuts that put more pressure and stress on workers, these workers will leave, taking family with them. That means a smaller tax base and less money going back into NWT economy and local businesses.   

Residents and businesses alike rely on a variety of government services and agencies that cannot function without the people who actually do the work. 

If our government wants to present a fiscally responsible budget, it needs to cut back on the amount it’s spending on contracting out government work. We’re starting to see the same pattern emerge that we’ve seen many times in jurisdictions down south: governments hobbling public sector workers behind the scenes to make it easier to sell the need for privatization to the general public.

If you think this is an extreme point of view, ask yourself why the GNWT has been unwilling to answer the calls of its own employees to fix the issues in our healthcare system, but has been more than happy to throw millions of dollars at for-profit healthcare agencies. 

But it doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom. One of the upsides to our consensus-style government is the fact that cabinet cannot pass a budget without the support of the regular members. These MLAs directly represent their constituents and have the freedom to speak – and vote – according to what they hear from NWT residents. 

Unlike most legislatures in Canada, our regular MLAs have the power to make changes to the budget that’s set before them. Line by line, our elected representatives will go through the estimates and have a chance to ask questions about how public money will be spent.

At the end of the day, these MLAs will decide the fate of our public service based on how they vote.

Every resident deserves representation from their MLA, and every resident deserves quality public services. Public service workers not only provide these services, they are also residents and taxpayers who contribute to their communities by supporting local businesses, volunteering with community and territorial organizations, and participating in events and activities that make our communities stronger and more vibrant.

Our economy relies on balancing workforces and sectors that support each other. When one sector suffers, we all feel the impacts. The reality of our territory is that the public service represents a significant and crucial sector of our economy. Remember the outcry from the various chambers of commerce when public service workers were sent to work from home during the pandemic? This is the perfect example of the impact that our public service has on our economy and why it’s so important for Northerners to have access to stable jobs that allow them to contribute to their communities.

It’s also important for residents in smaller, more remote communities to have equitable access to staff and services. The prospect of job cuts outside of Yellowknife hits especially hard in smaller communities and where access to government resources is already limited. Our small communities are trapped in a cycle of not being able to recruit or retain staff, resulting in extended vacancies that then result in cuts and/or centralization of services. This is frustrating and unfair not only to residents, but also to the workers who are doing their best to provide services remotely.

In the coming weeks, our public service will be put under a microscope as MLAs decide how much money to allocate to programs and services, and to the workers who provide them. 

These MLAs are accountable to their constituents, and we encourage all NWT residents to reach out to your MLA and let them know that more reductions, delays and disruptions to the services you rely on are unacceptable.