About twenty years ago, armed with my newly-minted Masters degree in Public Administration, I survived the last major round of public service cuts under the Jean Chretien Liberals. Too young then for the Early Retirement Incentive (ERI), I nonetheless took a close look at the Early Departure Incentives (EDI) that were being offered at that time. Could I perhaps find myself a job OUTSIDE the public service, even at a slightly lower rate of pay or with less generous benefits, but bridge the gap with the money I would get from an EDI?

In fact, there was one opportunity that looked promising. It was a researcher-type position with one of the (then) relatively new public service unions and I felt that my librarian skill-set, in conjunction with my Public Administration degree (in which I had taken a particular interest in labour relations, as it was also directly related to the job I was doing part-time while studying for my degree), would equip me quite well to do the job. The salary would have been quite a bit more than I was then earning. As for the benefits... well, I found them a little difficult to evaluate.

In the end, it was a moot point. Although I successfully jumped through a number of hoops, completing a respectable written assignment and being one of perhaps ten or twelve people (out of hundreds of applicants) who made it to the interview stage, I did not ultimately get offered the job.

During that interview, one of the board members asked me something about "mean to mean vs. mean to Q3". In other words, is it reasonable that government workers should get a compensation package that corresponds to the AVERAGE of compensation packages in all sectors of the labour force? Or should the government sector strive to be a LEADER in progressive compensation packages, comparing itself to the top quartile of compensation packages in all sectors of the economy?

A very reasonable question, I think. I've got a pretty good idea of how our current federal government would answer it, and it's not the way I would! After all, the public sector is not constrained by the bottom line in the same way that the private sector is. It has a duty to be representative of the Canadian population as a whole, and to be a leader in respecting human rights legislation with regard to prohibited forms of discrimination. Then there are principles like Ministerial accountability and security of tenure that relate to the requirement of loyalty and impartiality on the part of public servants (senators, too, but that's another story) - something that our current government seems simply not to understand. In economic and political terms, today's government keeps saying that we can't offer or enrich social programs until the budget is balanced - completely ignoring the principle that governments, unlike private charities and other organizations, can (and arguably SHOULD) afford to offer countercyclical stimuli, spending MORE when times are bad and LESS when times are good. Is Keynesianism dead?

In the course of my career with the federal public service, I saw many people accept lower salaries than they could have earned elsewhere, simply because they wanted the security and benefits that went with a public service position. Little did any of us suspect that the government would engage in the kind of concession bargaining we've seen in recent years, eliminating severance pay, "reforming" sick leave and performance evaluation, making pay equity (and perhaps eventually other basic human rights) something that has to be "negotiated" at the bargaining table, upping the retirement age, shifting new hires from a defined-benefit to a defined-contribution pension plan, and the pièce de résistance - picking on retirees and making us pay 50% rather than the previous 25% of the premium costs for our extended health care benefits, something which we had already won fair and square at the bargaining table. That's a low blow. After all, what are we going to do if we don't like it - go on strike??

The School of Public Administration at Carleton is celebrating its 60th anniversary next week with a day-long conference and dinner with Bob Rae as guest speaker. I plan to attend at least some of it. I'm looking forward to seeing some people I haven't seen in ages and learning what is being done to at least attempt to reverse some of the alarming trends we've seen lately.
Hi, Folks and Folkies! The topic of today's blogcutter café is... coffee! When I was at Carleton University in the early seventies, the on-campus coffee house was called "Arthur's Place" after its genial host, Arthur McGregor (of Ottawa Folklore Centre fame). Later, it moved up to the fourth floor and was renamed "Roosters". On weekends, there was coffee-house type entertainment including such people as Ian Tamblyn and Cedric Smith. By that time, it was licenced to sell beer and wine and a few light snacks. For the longest time, it was the last bastion of the ten-cent cup of coffee.

Fast forward some forty years, and I'm visiting the campus on a weekly basis to take a "Learning in Retirement" course: Phil Jenkins' "A History of Ottawa Culture". Even though coffee house culture is a thing of the past, I thought for sure there must be plenty of places to get a decent (or even mediocre) cup of coffee on campus. But no. There are still all kinds of vending machines serving cold beverages, but nary a coffee machine in sight. Don't students drink coffee any more? Or has Tim Horton's used its considerable muscle to oust absolutely ANY other coffee vendor (be it human, mechanical or electronic) from the campus?

In desperation, I queued up for "Timmy's", though I really don't like their coffee. I find it insipid, there's no real choice of blend, and you can't accessorize it to your own taste. Unlike other chains which are coffee-places that also happen to sell snacks, Timmy's is basically a doughnut shop that happens to serve weak coffee. As for any specialty coffees like espresso, cappuccino and so on, forget it! Yes, they have beverages they CALL those aforesaid names, but I don't consider them worthy of the name.

This column is also something of a requiem for coffee house culture. When the drinking age in Ontario was lowered from 21 to 18 (it was later raised back up to 19), that was the final nail in the coffin of coffee house culture. Ottawa's Le Hibou closed shortly thereafter, although it was somewhat kept alive on the airwaves through CJOH's show "Café Hibou". Then we had Rasputin's, which burned down although a few brave folk are trying to keep it alive through "Spirit of Rasputin's" concerts and small-stage open-mike presentations at the Ottawa Folk Festival.

When I was a teenager, there were Friday-evening drop-in "coffee houses" at our local church. Those of you who like me are of a certain age will know the atmosphere that is required for these things: red-and-white checked tablecloths, each sporting as centrepiece and sole light source an empty Chianti bottle (in signature raffia wrapping) with a candle in it and multicoloured candlewax drippings on the part of the bottle that the raffia doesn't cover.

As they say, nostalgia ain't what it used to be.

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