Tony Clement says he's prepared to shut down programs and shrink the public service in order to deliver as the man in charge of wrestling Canada's deficit to the ground.
As the new President of the Treasury Board, it is up to Mr. Clement to squeeze savings out of his cabinet colleagues in the face of this year's projected $29.6-billion deficit.
The government released a budget in March that forecast a surplus by 2015-16, but during the election campaign Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised to move that up a year.
Mr. Clement says there will be no backing down.
"I'm of the view that this has to be done," he said in an interview Thursday. "This was a clear, rock-solid commitment that we had during the campaign and failure is not an option."
Mr. Clement noted that his spending review will come up with $4-billion in annual savings that must come from the $80-billion Ottawa spends on direct federal program spending, and not transfers to the provinces.
"So we have to look at our direct program spending and that includes wages and salaries and professional services and grants and contributions and other operating costs," he said.
"Yeah, there are going to be reductions," he said. "I don't want to sugarcoat that. There are going to be reductions and we're going to try and make it as connected as possible to Canadians' actual expectations of what they want government to do."
Speaking in general terms, he said he agrees with those who argue it is better to cut entire programs when scaling back, rather than across-the-board cuts that can harm government services that are working well.
"It may well mean that some other things that perhaps were important 20 or 30 years ago are less important now and we can logically get out of those things without doing too much harm to the public or to people's expectations of what government should be doing," he said.
Mr. Clement was the founding president of the Canadian Alliance, a political movement in favour of smaller government that ultimately morphed into the Conservative Party of Canada.
Yet after five years in power, the federal public service is now 13 per cent larger than in 2006 when Mr. Harper became Prime Minister.
Government figures for 2010 show there are 315,145 federal government workers, up from 278,729 in 2006. Roughly half of those government jobs are in the National Capital Region of Ottawa and Gatineau. The growth of the public service under the Conservatives has also been greater in Ottawa-Gatineau - increasing by 16 per cent since 2006 - than the national average.
John Gordon, president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, said he's concerned Conservative talk of savings through attrition will create big headaches for the public servants he represents.
In the interview, Mr. Clement said attrition remains a key part of the government's plan to save money.
"We feel that a lot of the public service numbers can be reduced mainly through attrition. We said that during the campaign, so I'm not moving away from that," Mr. Clement said. " And obviously the public service, by and large, does a good job for Canadians."
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty recently suggested the accelerated deficit-elimination timeline will not be reflected in next month's budget because the additional savings required have not yet been identified. Mr. Flaherty's office said the campaign promise still holds, but the savings will come through a process led by Treasury Board called the Strategic and Operating Review.
That will involve a special cabinet committee, chaired by Mr. Clement, acting with the advice of a panel of outside experts. Each department will have to submit two plans to the committee: one that includes a 5-per-cent cut and another plan for a 10-per-cent reduction. The cabinet committee is scheduled to make decisions in the fall that will be announced in the 2012 budget.
Mr. Clement was in his riding of Parry Sound-Muskoka Thursday and has yet to be fully briefed by officials on his new role.
Estimated deficit for 2011-12
Size of the first surplus according to the March 2011 budget: $4.2-billion in 2015-16
Size of the first surplus according to the Conservative election platform: $3.7-billion in 2014-15
Where the savings will come from
The March budget outlined a "Strategic and Operating Review." It must find at least $4-billion in annual savings from the $80-billion Ottawa spends every year on programs.