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Politics Liberals add $142-million in spending to solve Phoenix pay problems

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The federal government is pouring more money into the bug-addled Phoenix payroll system in hopes of getting closer to solving the ongoing boondoggle — and it's blaming the previous Conservative government for the extra cost.

The Liberals will spend $142 million over two years to hire 200 temporary workers on top of the 300 hired to date to deal with the problems wrought by Phoenix, which left tens of thousands of public servants underpaid, overpaid or not paid at all.

The money will address capacity issues that Steven MacKinnon, the parliamentary secretary to Public Services Minister Judy Foote, said are at the root of why Phoenix has yet to live up to expectations.

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It will help officials deal with an expected increase in payments linked to new collective agreements coming into force and the hiring of summer students, MacKinnon told a news conference Wednesday.

MacKinnon blamed the expense on the previous Conservative government, which axed hundreds of workers who handled pay claims before Phoenix went live. The Liberals had no choice but to proceed with Phoenix last year, despite concerns, he added.

"The choice was not between Phoenix and the old system; the choice was between Phoenix and no system because the people required to operate the old system were no longer on the job," MacKinnon said.

"We have no choice but to make this system a success, and we accept that responsibility."

Kelly McCauley, the official Opposition's deputy procurement critic, said the Liberals have been more focused on blaming others for their mistakes than they are with fixing Phoenix once and for all.

"If the government had legitimate concerns about staffing levels, they shouldn't have waited almost two years to take action," McCauley said in a statement.

"The Liberals' lack of action and constant excuses are extremely offensive to employees who are on the verge of losing their homes, being forced to postpone their educations, or going into debt because they are not being paid properly."

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The extra spending adds to the mounting costs to taxpayers for a system that the previous Conservative government billed as an off-the-shelf, government-wide solution that would save Canadians $70 million a year.

Three years of unrealized savings — including the next fiscal year — plus Thursday's new spending and $50 million spent last year add up to additional costs of $402 million for a project that originally carried a $300-million price tag.

NDP public services critic Erin Weir said the Liberals have yet to provide an overall estimate for the cost of fixing Phoenix, although it's clear the government is spending more than it originally estimated.

Ancillary costs have included reimbursing federal workers for interest charges or penalties incurred on credit card balances they've been unable to cover without a paycheque.

"It's clear that they're spending far more than $140 million," Weir said in a telephone interview. "Parliamentarians and all Canadians need to know how much the Phoenix boondoggle is costing."

MacKinnon couldn't say Thursday just how much taxpayers have spent on Phoenix.

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"We'll happily, as will the auditor general, provide a full accounting," MacKinnon said.

The auditor general's office said its review of Phoenix is expected to be out this fall, with more details about the scope of the audit revealed closer to its release.

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