Vancouver Courier

August 16, 1998

Can too much honesty in a politician be a bad thing? Such a question probably sounds as inane and self-evident as “can a bank change?”—but think about it.

Politicians who indulge in opportunistic moralizing and inflated rhetoric when in Opposition, can suddenly find themselves hamstrung once in office. Thus, if an Opposition leader like, oh, say, Jean Chrétien, makes a really stupid promise, the need to follow through on it can turn out to be politically embarrassing and harmful to the public good.

In such a case, perhaps betraying a promise is the lesser of two evils. Against the short-term damage to the government’s reputation and any intra-party unrest it might cause must be weighed the long-term benefits of abandoning a wrongheaded policy. After all, “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Whether the little minds hold sway in Chrétien’s government depends on how it reacts to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal’s decision in a long-standing “pay equity” case.

The Public Service Alliance of Canada is seeking retroactive compensation, with interest going back to 1984, for 200,000 (mostly female) federal civil service clerks who charged that they were underpaid relative to (mostly male) program administrators. The potential cost of settling the suit is now estimated as high as $7 billion.

To expect the people of Canada to foot the bill is preposterous, yet that is what the tribunal expects us to do. The question is: Does the government have the courage to risk the feminist fallout and appeal the decision, or even reject it outright, and legislate a settlement?

In the run-up to the 1993 federal election, the Progressive Conservative government of Brian Mulroney was planning to pre-empt the tribunal and limit back pay compensation claims to 1990.

Ah, but Saint Jean Le Bon would have none of this Tory knavery! He delivered a four-page letter to PSAC president Daryl Bean promising to abide by the tribunal decision. As reported in the Ottawa Citizen, Chrétien wrote: “Equal pay for work of equal value became a right with the passage of the Canadian Human Rights Act, a right that does not begin and end on the whim of the Tory government.” Leaving aside the inherently dubious validity of pay equity, such broad abdication of decision-making control must be seen as an attempt to curry favour with PSAC.

Now that Chrétien is prime minister, his reckless love-letter to Mr. Bean is causing his government conspicuous discomfort. The Citizen reported that last year the Liberals were considering a legislated settlement after negotiations with PSAC soured, but the party’s women’s caucus would have no part of this “Liberal” whim.

Today, Treasury Board president Marcel Masse said the government is considering its options, and in six or seven weeks will decide whether to appeal, legislate, renegotiate or obey. Turns out old Brian was right on this one.

Two things about this debacle are disturbing. The first concerns the role of the tribunal. Since this is a labour matter between employers and employees, the tribunal has no business butting in. In fact, it’s responsible for queering a possible earlier agreement.

The Treasury Board and PSAC came up with their own methodology of equating specific jobs with specific jobs, but that wasn’t good enough. In an act of unspeakable arrogance, the tribunal decided that the Human Rights Commission had a better formula, and imposed it on both parties. This is why the total bill could push $7 billion.

The tribunal’s inability to adjudicate pay-equity cases had been exposed in March when the Federal Court quashed a hearing involving Bell Canada, charging that the tribunal could not be trusted to be impartial. (Until May last year the tribunal and commission were part of the same body, which is a bit like being judge and prosecutor.) Can there be any doubt that the tribunal is unfit to hear this case?

The second disturbing fact concerns the degree to which a government should be held responsible for past wrongs. These women willingly chose to work as federal clerks. They accepted the terms of employment and were represented by a union. Nobody forced them into these jobs or stopped them from seeking other employment. If they were underpaid, that’s unfortunate, but I don’t see why I or any other taxpayer should have to be responsible for compensating them, at least to the tune of $7 billion.

This also calls into question the notion of fairness. What’s “fair” for the clerks is manifestly unfair for the rest of us. The notion that fairness can be legislated is one of the hoariest socialist myths that I thought had been laid to rest ages ago.

It’s always easy to see the government as the bad guy that should be milked for as much as possible, but that sort of attitude is ultimately self-defeating. All money has an opportunity cost. Seven billion dollar can buy a lot of education or health care. According to an Ekos poll released earlier this week, support for pay equity nationwide falls from 78 per cent to 40 per cent when a tax hike is mentioned.

What the tribunal calls fair, any sane person would call rationalized extortion. This is no longer a labour matter—it is a test case of feminist activism. Because of this, the award is inflated. The government has a duty to appeal the decision, notwithstanding Chrétien’s letter or the discomfiture of the party’s powerful feminist élite.