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Politics Conservative budget bill sets up battle with federal unions

President of the Treasury Board Tony Clement responds to a question during question period in the House of Commons Thursday, February 19, 2015 in Ottawa.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The Conservative government is giving itself new powers in the latest omnibus budget bill to impose controversial sick leave changes to the public service, a move that sets up a battle with federal unions just months before the October election.

The budget bill tabled Thursday, C-59, has 157 numbered pages, which is less than half the size of both budget bills tabled last year. However Thursday's bill continues the pattern of jamming budget bills with a wide-range of substantive measures, including entirely new laws.

Bill C-59 includes the government's long-promised balanced budget legislation, as well as a new law called the Prevention of Terrorist Travel Act, which restricts the release of intelligence used by government to cancel a passport on national security grounds.

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Critics have long opposed the government's approach to omnibus budget bills, arguing that including major new measures all in one bill means that the individual changes do not receive the same thorough Parliamentary scrutiny that they would have received had they been introduced as a piece of standalone legislation.

Unions had already expressed concerns about the government's plans on sick leave when they were first signalled in Finance Minister Joe Oliver's April 21 budget.

Bill C-59 gives the Treasury Board minister the power to ignore provisions of the Public Service Labour Relations Act and unilaterally change the terms and conditions of sick leave in the public service and create a new short-term disability program.

Treasury Board President Tony Clement has said a new sick leave regime was his priority heading into labour negotiations last year with public service bargaining units. The major unions had said they strongly opposed Mr. Clement's proposal.

"Nothing in this [section] affects the right to strike under the Public Service Labour Relations Act," states one section of the budget bill.

"The government has decided to completely throw out any pretense that they intend to respect the collective bargaining rights of its workers," said Robyn Benson, president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, the largest union of federal public servants. "This attack on our members' rights will seriously harm public services by forcing people to go to work sick, and cause irreparable damage to labour relations. We will take every available action in our power to challenge the legislation."

Mr. Clement said in a statement that the government is looking to update an "antiquated" sick leave system.

"The government's overarching goal in these negotiations is to reach agreements on total public service compensation that are fair and reasonable to both the employees and the taxpayer," he said.

Other sections of the bill implement the wide range of tax credits announced in the budget, including repealing the child tax credit, expanding the Universal Child Care Benefit and introducing income splitting for couples in different income brackets.

The bill creates a new "Parliamentary Protective Service," that would place responsibility for security on Parliament Hill in the hands of the RCMP.

The bill also lays out new rules regulating unpaid internships, including that they cannot replace any employee and that the internship must not be a prerequisite to the person being offered employment.

The bill includes sections from the government's two most recent bills, C-57 related to family tax cuts, and C-58, related to veterans benefits. The government is likely doing this to ensure the measures become law before mid-to-late June, when MPs are scheduled to break for summer and are not expected to return before the October election.

The budget bill includes changes to a wide-range of existing laws, including the Industrial Design Act, the Patent Act, the Trade-marks Act, the Canada Labour Code, the Copyright Act, the Export Development Act, the Members of Parliament Retiring Allowances Act, the National Energy Board Act, the Parliament of Canada Act, the Employment Insurance Act, the Canada Small Business Financing Act, the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act, the Proceeds of Crime (Money Laundering) and Terrorist Financing Act, the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, the First Nations Fiscal Management Act, the Canadian Forces Members and Veterans Re-establishment and Compensation Act, the Ending the Long-gun Registry Act, the Trust and Loan Companies Act, the Bank Act, the Insurance Companies Act, and the Cooperative Credit Associations Act.

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