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Canada's Finance Minister Jim Flaherty debates his budget in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa March 29, 2012. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)
Canada's Finance Minister Jim Flaherty debates his budget in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa March 29, 2012. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)

Foreign Affairs budget cuts will start at the top Add to ...

The exotic image of international jet-setting will give way to the reality of hours spent on public transit to get to work as foreign-service officers move to more distant suburbs and, in some countries, potentially more dangerous neighbourhoods, as part of a plan by Foreign Affairs to save on rents.

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Employees at the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade received their first briefing on Monday from management outlining what to expect from budget cuts. Other details are still scarce about how Ottawa will reach its 2012 budget target of cutting $5.2-billion a year and eliminating 19,200 public-sector positions.

Led by deputy ministers Morris Rosenberg and Louis Lévesque, officials at the Lester B. Pearson Building headquarters – and diplomats tuning in on closed-circuit feeds from abroad – were told the cuts would start at the top.

The number of assistant deputy ministers will be reduced to eight from 12. Staff were told to expect cutbacks on government cars, and in some cases, longer postings and less pay. (The longer terms would not apply to “hardship” postings of short duration such as Afghanistan and the West Bank.)

A cutback on rent allowances will mean downtown apartments near the office are likely too pricey. A spokesman for the Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers said some diplomats already commute more than an hour in each direction in big cities like London because of previous cuts. Further trimming will mean even longer commutes, and some worry that reduced rent budgets could raise safety issues for some posts.

Diplomatic missions in violent or unstable nations tend to be in safer areas, where housing can be expensive. Moving farther out could mean living in places that are less secure.

“In some of the less-desirable places to live in the world, the number of apartments or of neighbourhoods where you could live is fairly limited,” said Tim Edwards, who speaks on behalf of the foreign service officers’ association. “Sometimes, the owners of those accommodations know it and they command a bit of a premium for that, and so if we’re looking to save money and we consider those premiums to be too high, maybe it means going further afield.”

There is also concern that extra pay incentives offered for working in more dangerous countries will be scaled back.

While the DFAIT briefing did not include formal layoff notices, union leaders say they’ve been told that employees in other departments will receive notices later this week outlining who is affected.

John Gordon, president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, says he agreed to keep the details under wraps until employees are given the notices. He said his union would be able to confirm details on Wednesday. The union has a conference scheduled that morning, but a PSAC spokesperson said its focus will be on reacting to the budget and it’s not clear whether officials will be in a position to confirm details on cuts at that point in the day.

“They’re coming in fast and furious to my office,” Mr. Gordon said in reference to the staffing process that requires union leaders to be notified first, followed by the individual employees. Both PSAC and another major federal union, the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, estimate that the notices they’ve received so far would affect more than 6,000 workers.

Many employees who receive “affected” notices will remain employed. For instance, if a division of 30 workers is being cut in half, all 30 workers could receive “affected” notices and essentially have to compete for the remaining positions.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty defended his budget in the House of Commons.

“We are trying to strike the balance between getting to a balanced budget in the medium term and supporting jobs,” he said.

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair said the Conservatives are taking a “slash-and-burn approach” to the public service.

“What they’re cutting are things like food safety, transport safety. They’re cutting regional economic development – all the things that we need to protect the public or to protect economic growth in the country,” he said. “So I’m not surprised whatsoever to see them already sending out notices. It’s their slash-and-burn approach that they’ve always taken to public administration.”

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