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Treasury Board President Tony Clement speaks with the media in the foyer of the House of Commons Tuesday, Dec.4, 2012 in Ottawa.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Unionized federal public servants will have to undergo annual performance reviews that will lead to more of them being fired, the Harper government announced Tuesday.

The new directive will be hotly resisted by public-service unions, which will see such measures as yet another assault on unionized public servants from the Conservative government.

But the government believes public servants will welcome the new reviews.

"We owe it to the vast majority of committed, hard-working public servants to make sure everyone is pulling their weight," a government official told The Globe and Mail on background before the announcement. "Either poor performers improve and become productive employees or we will let them go."

In Ottawa Tuesday, Treasury Board President Tony Clement said the measures, which will not come into force until 2014, are aimed at ensuring that Canadians have a quality public service.

"Hard-working Canadians look at us to provide high-quality, affordable service for their tax dollars," Mr. Clement said. "Either poor performers improve and become productive as employees - or we will have to let them go."

The performance reviews are the latest measure by the Harper government aimed at making the federal public service more cost-effective. In the last budget, the government gave itself powers to oversee collective bargaining at Crown corporations, and previous reforms have required public servants to bear a greater share of the costs of their pensions.

Public-service unions have launched an advertising campaign opposing federal oversight of contract talks at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, which the government's opponents see as a back-door effort to exert editorial control over the broadcaster.

The Conservatives are also expected to take a tough line on bargaining when collective agreements come up for renegotiation in 2014.

Public-service union leaders believe the Harper government is trying to eliminate its deficit on the backs of their workers, while stoking public resentment of those workers for political gain.

Efforts to dismiss public servants through performance reviews will be constrained by those collective agreements, which can make it difficult to fire employees. The performance reviews, which come into effect next April, will not include new financial incentives to reward high-performers.

Gary Corbett, the President of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, disputed that workers might resist performance reviews. He said that in his experience, there have always been some form of public review and that such conversations are generally helpful to workers as a source of guidance and feedback.

He said he did not see why performance management should be a political issue. He also said the government is not providing many details about the proposed changes.

At $43-billion, paying the wages of 212,028 core public servants is by far the biggest federal expenditure. According to government estimates, private-sector employers let go between 5 and 10 per cent of their work force annually for performance-related reasons.

"In the federal public service, we are nowhere near that and we are even below other comparable civil services," the official stated.

Under the new rules, each employee will receive written performance objectives and will be assessed annually on how well they meet those objectives. Assistance will be available to workers who initially fail to measure up, but chronic under-performance would set in motion mechanisms for dismissal.

Mr. Clement announced the new directive at a closed-door meeting of public-service executives on Tuesday, before briefing media.

He will also announce plans to reform disability management for the public service. The existing system, which has been largely unreformed for four decades, does a poor job of tracking cases and training public servants who become disabled to return to work, the government believes.

Conservative supporters will see the new performance reviews as the latest tranche in an ongoing effort to rein in spending on the federal public service while transforming it into a more professional, responsible and flexible work force.

Critics will claim the government is simply trying to score political points at a time of increasing unpopularity by scapegoating public servants.

With a report from Bill Curry