OTTAWA — Civilian staff numbers at National Defence grew by almost 30 per cent over six years, despite budget cuts and warnings the military has too much “tail and not enough teeth.”
The figures are in a spreadsheet report of the entire federal civil service, compiled by the Parliamentary Budget Office and posted last week.
The tables show that since the Harper government was elected, the number of non-uniformed employees at Defence rose to 27,177 at the end of the 2011-12 fiscal year from 20,978 in 2005-06.
That’s far above the 14 per cent increase in the entire civil service during the Conservative mandate.
The swelling of administrative ranks at Defence has caught the attention of the prime minister.
Stephen Harper warned Defence Minister Peter MacKay last year, in a letter obtained by The Canadian Press, to take a second run at budget cuts to reduce overhead.
Retired lieutenant-general Andrew Leslie, in his landmark report on overhauling the military in 2011, sounded the same warning. He said the bureaucracy, built up during the Afghan war, should be the principal target of the reductions.
Two years later, Leslie said, the cuts that have been made did not hit the target, landing instead on the people his report and the prime minister tried to protect.
“The underlying premise of the 2011 report on transformation was that everything possible should be done to protect the front-line teeth,” Leslie said in an interview with The Canadian Press on Tuesday.
The Leslie report noted that as of March 31, 2010, there were 29,348 civilians working at Defence and their growth “had been the highest in absolute and relative terms” throughout the department.
A spokeswoman for Defence Minister Peter MacKay pointed to spring federal budget records and said the government plans further reductions, taking the civilian workforce down to 25,408 in the current fiscal year.
“This is in line with our department’s transition to a lower pace of operations following the end of the combat mission in Afghanistan,” Paloma Aguilar said in a statement.
In the last year, “affected” notices have been issued to more than 1,500 civilian employees telling them their jobs were about to be eliminated.
But Leslie said the categories of affected workers are telling because they include clerical staff at bases, gun range supervisors, radiation safety advisers, armoury workers and trades helpers — people on whom the troops depend.
Without them, he said, the services won’t get done, or soldiers and sailors will have to pick up some of the duties. That, he says, leaves less time for training in a scenario that ultimately leads to an erosion of capability.
“The vast majority of growth at DND, since 2004, has been in overhead,” he said.
“All of those folk who have received affected notices, at least the vast majority, are to be found on bases and directly support the front-line troops. And I don’t see affected worker notices going out to where the vast majority of the growth has occurred since 2004, which is at the higher level headquarters.”
His report paid particular attention to staff at National Defence headquarters, noting that 57 per cent of the increase took place in Ottawa-based administration and finance.
“No one argues about the legitimacy of contributing towards reducing the federal deficit. It is where the cuts occur. That’s always been the rub,” he said.
Aguilar’s email did not say where the planned reductions would take place — or when another set of notices would be issued.
Although reportedly well received in the Prime Minister’s Office, the exhaustive study of the military received a cool reception at Defence, where a handful of the 43 recommendations have been implemented.
When Leslie and his team were preparing the assessment, he was blocked from looking at the civilian side by senior officials within the department who said such a review fell outside his mandate.
That forced researchers to rely on data from outside Defence, including the federal Treasury Board and the Public Service Commission.
To put the current budget battle in historical context, National Defence had 37,200 civilian staff on the payroll in 1990, according the Parliamentary Budget Office spreadsheet.
That number plummeted to 17,037 by 1999 during dramatic cuts under the Chretien Liberals.