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Civil-service layoffs were as painless as they could be, panel says

Former cabinet minister David Emerson, who headed an aerospace and space review, holds a news conference to discuss the findings of his report Nov. 29, 2012 in Ottawa.


A blue-ribbon panel claims the elimination of nearly 17,000 positions in the federal public service this past year has been a "smooth process" and that 2013 is shaping up to be an important year for the government to find more savings on everything from sick days to health and retirement benefits.

The Conservative government's 2013 budget put public servants on notice that the government would soon be launching consultations with unions on a number of areas, including sick leave and disability benefits.

The report, released Thursday by the Prime Minister's Advisory Committee on the Public Service, praises the government's "remarkable dexterity" in reducing spending and nearly 17,000 positions. The committee is led by former Clerk of the Privy Council Paul Tellier and former Liberal and Conservative cabinet minister David Emerson.

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In an interview, Mr. Emerson admitted there were frustrations over the way layoffs were managed. But much of the stress, he said, was due to a complicated system for staff reductions based on a long-standing agreement between unions and government.

"So I would say given the complexities that the government was essentially forced to go through in terms of laying off people, it progressed pretty quickly. Inside of essentially a year, they're pretty much where they needed to be," he said.

Labour leaders, however, are shaking their head as to how the advisory committee could have come to such a rosy conclusion, given the high levels of anxiety and stress that public servants have faced in recent years.

"I'm not going to say it's been a total disaster, but I'm not going to say it's been smooth either," said Gary Corbett, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, which primarily represents white-collar government workers.

One concrete example of the impact of federal job cuts surfaced last year when managers of a distress line for federal public servants said they were on track to receive a record number of calls, including well over 100 that involved a risk of suicide.

Going forward, the panel said, bargaining should look at compensation packages offered to public servants and compare them to those offered in the private sector. Mr. Emerson said comparing private and public sector compensation is a complex exercise that needs to be done and disclosed in a transparent way.

"Certainly I have heard – and the committee has heard – that in certain parts of the compensation spectrum, when you look at total compensation, public servants are paid in excess of the private sector counterparts," he said.

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"You want a national compensation grid for the public service and yet what's a good pay packet in Toronto might be hugely out of line in Truro, Nova Scotia. So it's a messy issue that needs to be dealt with in all its complexities."

Union leaders welcomed the panel's call for government and unions to work together and avoid "unnecessary confrontation," but the government's focus on compensation clearly has some on the defensive.

Chris Aylward, National Executive Vice-President for the Public Service Alliance of Canada, said his union will aim to preserve existing benefits as it enters talks with the government. Mr. Aylward disputes that public sector benefits should decrease if they are more generous than the private sector.

"Rather than have a race to the bottom, why not try to bring the private sector in line with current benefits of the public sector?" he said. "Maybe that's where we should be headed."

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