Unless you’ve been out of the country, or under a rock, for the last couple of years, you’ll be at least vaguely familiar with the concept that the province of Ontario is broke. So broke, in fact, that it has departed radically from previous practice and, back in 2012, effectively froze physicians’ pay for two years. Not individual physicians, of course – but on aggregate. A zero overall increase. And the government is now working to try to extend this freeze for another couple of years.
That makes good sense. Health care costs have historically risen at several percentage points above inflation, and have squeezed other parts of the provincial budget (education has held out OK, all things considered, but other budget lines have been less well-protected), and physician costs are a major item in the health care budget. And so saving money in this area is to be welcomed, even if it is at the expense of physicians – who are a politically tricky group to offend.
So what might the provincial government think of the post-secondary sector handing its employees raises of 3-4% per year, on aggregate? Do you think aggrieved doctors won’t point to this anomaly during this pay round? Can you imagine any possible rejoinder the government could offer that would make the least bit of sense?
Don’t you think maybe this situation is about to come to a rather sudden end?
For whatever reason, universities in Ontario have not been able to resist rising wage pressure from full-time faculty. Despite money getting tighter, they have felt compelled to sign agreements that are plainly beyond their means (Hel-LO, University of Ottawa!). Some university presidents, unable to deal with this problem on their own, are saying that they need government to step in to play “bad cop”.
What does the “bad cop” look like? Well, take a look at how BC has handled wage negotiations over the last few years. There, universities (and all other public sector entities) are given a biennial mandate with respect to employee negotiations. In 2010 and 2011, the deal was: negotiate what you like, but the net cost of any new compensation deal cannot exceed zero. In 2012 and 2013, that was changed to: there could be increases, but they had to be balanced dollar-for-dollar with efficiency savings in other areas. The 2010-11 arrangements, in conception at least, are close to the approach Ontario has taken with its physicians. And it worked pretty well, at least in the sense that it has kept costs down with a minimum of political fuss.
Not everyone in Ontario agrees that the province needs to take the bad cop approach. Quite a number of university presidents (you can probably guess which ones) oppose asking the province to legislate on their behalf; not only do they feel it morally incumbent on universities to manage their own books, but also it is tactical suicide to ask governments to legislate – once you go down that road, there’s no telling where they’ll stop micromanaging universities’ affairs.
The problem is, those presidents haven’t exactly been too successful at reigning-in costs, either (hello again, University of Ottawa!). So it seems almost inevitable that some sort of BC-like solution is on the cards. The idea that profs could gain 15% in salary over four years, while physicians get zero, simply isn’t politically tenable.