Highly Sought After and Unfairly Treated

For those that missed it earlier this week, your Treasury Board President Tony Clement, once again refused the technological high-road, and decided to engage in an argument with Tim Edwards, president of the union representing Canada’s striking foreign service officers (PAFSO), with regards to the accuracy of claims made by former Ambassador Derek Burney in his article for iPolitics.

Let us take this step-by-step.  First, Minister Clement claims Burney is misinformed and that the government made a fair and reasonable offer in an attempt to resolve the current work action undertaken by PAFSO.  While never having met Mr. Burney, I have met many people that have worked quite closely with him.  It seems unlikely that he would willfully not access information for both sides given his links to members in the foreign service union and the Conservative party.  Implying that Burney either disregarded the information given to him or did not seek it out in the first place strikes an interesting balance of either calling Burney intellectually dishonest or intellectually lazy, both of which I find distasteful when referring to a citizen of Burney’s stature.

When Edwards questioned the ‘fairness’ of the offer Clement referred to and highlighted the union’s contention that there is an inequality of compensation between people doing equal work, Clement responded that he disagreed with the characterization of “same work” and that the position of foreign service officer is one that is highly sought after.  Short of Minister Clement having worked for DFATD in the past, which he hasn’t, how could he, with confidence, know that the work being done by public servants, hired for different purposes, is not in fact the same.  Relying upon what someone may have been hired to do when entering into the public service to inform your characterization of what they do now is, to borrow Minister Clement’s term, is misinformed.  This is not to say that foreign service officers should be getting paid more, because it could be equally true that the economists and policy analysts that do the same work as foreign service officers should be paid less.  I am simply pointing out that Minister Clement should be blaming the inflexibility of job classifications, not arguing that the people working on the same teams side-by-side are doing different work.  His saying so over and over is the equivalent to a child plugging its ears and stomping on the floor.

To Minister Clement’s second point that foreign service officer positions are highly sought after, he is right.  Recruitment sessions are well-attended and applications are numerous when openings arise.  That being said, there are many jobs that are both well-paid and highly sought after that have no business being done by someone without the skills necessary.  I like the law.  I find it interesting.  The money is good and there are lots of people that apply to law schools every year; fulfilling the requirements of being both well-paid and highly-sought.  However, the law, Minister Clement’s chosen profession before becoming a professional politician twenty years ago, requires a skill premium on which their compensation is based.  So while I think being a lawyer would be great; the university degree, the law degree that follows, and passing provincial bar exams exclude me from doling out professional legal advice.  This is what people in biz like to call a barrier to entry.  The foreign service has a barrier to entry: the public service exams.  While you can question the utility of them, it does play the same exclusionary role that a bar exam does.  Therefore, while not being a lawyer skilled in the art of argumentation, I can understand there is a set of skills necessary to perform that function effectively for which lawyers are compensated.  What I can’t understand is why Minister Clement thinks every Canadian could do the work being performed at Pearson or represent our country abroad, because he evidently doesn’t think the skill premium is as high as his chosen profession; as a lawyer, not a professional politician.

Finally, in his final barb during the conversation, Minister Clement assures Mr. Edwards that Edwards can tweet all he wants, but that Minister Clement has the taxpayers on his side.  With all due respect, Minister Clement’s recent care for taxpayers’ concerns is refreshing given the fact that it is his taxpayers that are currently enjoying G8 gazebos built roughly 100km west of the resort where the 2010 G8 was held in Huntsville.  Saying that taxpayers are on his side while assuring Mr. Edwards that Mr. Burney is misinformed is interesting in that he is either saying taxpayers are more informed about the on-going collective bargaining process than Mr. Burney or that all taxpayers immediately side with the government when fighting against higher wages for public service.  On the latter, Minister Clement may have a point.  Nevertheless, there are a lot of people who wonder why lawyers get paid what they do, or what are the quantifiable results of local MPs sitting in parliament.  According to the Tourist Industry Association of Canada, the tourism sector will lose $290-million this summer due to the foreign service officer job action; that could certainly buy a couple gazebos.

Matthew Gouett, PhD Candidate at The Norman Paterson School of International Affairs

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