Public servants are stepping out of the backrooms to issue rare public warnings that government cutbacks are already hurting vulnerable Canadians like veterans and seniors plus putting food and marine safety at risk.
At a pre-budget event on Parliament Hill organized by the Public Service Alliance of Canada – the largest federal public-sector union – civil servants shot back at criticism they are simply fighting to protect their jobs.
In a string of speeches, union members working with Service Canada, the Coast Guard, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Veterans Affairs told specific stories of how previous rounds of federal cuts are directly impacting Canadians.
Their warnings come in advance of the March 29 federal budget that will confirm the results of a new and more ambitious round of cuts aimed at finding between $4-billion and $8-billion a year in permanent spending reductions.
Union leaders are concerned after the government suggested there will be few details in the budget about the cuts, and there is also confusion as to when and how those cuts will be disclosed.
"The fact of the matter is we're going to see services eliminated and no one will know about it until you actually try and go to use those services. That's no way to run the operation," PSAC president John Gordon said. "There are already some reductions in these services and they're planning more."
Speakers at the Wednesday event included veterans advocate Michael Blais, who said former soldiers are having a hard time accessing the services they are entitled to because of poor service from Veterans Affairs.
Merv Wiseman, a search and rescue worker based in Newfoundland, spoke of receiving threats from senior management – including phone calls at night – because he is speaking out about last year's decision to close a maritime rescue centre in St. John's and move the work to Nova Scotia.
Mr. Wiseman brought Inuit hunter Todd Broomfield along with him to the event. Mr. Broomfield spoke of how he wouldn't be alive today if it weren't for the team at the rescue centre who helped save him and two fellow fishermen when their boat capsized last year off the coast of northern Labrador.
"Newfoundland and Labrador has a long coast line. It's exposed. It's rugged. Surely our government can afford to keep a marine rescue centre in St. John's that provides such a valuable service to the people who make a living in this harsh environment," Mr. Broomfield said. "Their knowledge of Newfoundland and Labrador is second to none. We don't want to lose that. ... This knowledge is priceless."
Another public servant, Service Canada benefits officer Heather Millar from Winnipeg, spoke of the impact cuts are having on very low-income seniors who are waiting months to reach someone on the phone who can help them obtain their Old Age Security and Guaranteed Income Supplement benefits.
Marianne Hladun, a Saskatoon-based food inspector with CFIA, warned that cutbacks are putting Canadians at risk of eating unsafe food.
On the use of attrition to reduce public-sector jobs, retired CFIA border inspector Paul Caron noted that his job was not replaced when he retired from the agency six years ago and he's concerned that all of the unsafe shipments he caught on the job are now getting into Canada.
The federal government's latest advertising campaign – as well as recent comments from cabinet ministers – suggests the government's plan is to focus the message of the 2012 budget on " jobs and growth" rather than government cuts.
A spokesman for Treasury Board President Tony Clement, who led the cost-cutting exercise that will be announced in the budget, shot back at the union concerns.
"It is not surprising that self-serving union bosses would once again tout a plan that would raise taxes, hike spending and increase the size of government," Sean Osmar said in an email. "Our responsible plan makes government leaner and more affordable; it will boost the economic recovery and will be good for job creation."
Separately, a report released Wednesday by TD Economics concludes that an improving economy means Ottawa's deficit fight may be a bit easier than previously thought. The report estimates the government can expect about $4-billion to $5-billion in extra annual revenue. The banks' economists say this money could be used to modestly soften the pace of spending restraint, cancel the need to find annual permanent spending efficiencies, build in more prudence into the fiscal plan or pursue modest tax relief.
"We fully recognize that austerity is never easy and can have marked regional, industrial and households impacts. However, moving to eliminate the deficit as an economy recovers – albeit gradually – is responsible fiscal policy," the report states. "With nerves on alert given the austerity talk and what it could all mean, there has been growing debate about whether now is the right time for spending restraint or whether significant cuts could tip the economy into recession. Unfortunately, there is never a right time to implement restraint – short-term pain is required for long-term gains."
Another report out Wednesday by the C.D. Howe Institute urges government to move more aggressively toward spending cuts.
The think tank calls on Ottawa to speed up the pace of spending reductions by cutting an extra $4.3-billion on top of existing spending cuts by eliminating 15,000 public sector positions through attrition, keeping per capita staffing cost growth to one per cent a year and capping the employer-paid portion of federal employee pension plans at nine per cent of pensionable pay.
The C.D. Howe report also calls on Ottawa to scrap several income tax credits – also known as tax expenditures – as a way of raising additional revenue.
"The federal tax system contains a myriad of exemptions, deductions, rebates, deferrals or credits to achieve various economic and social objectives," the report says. "We propose reducing or eliminating preferences for activities, such as home buying, purchasing health insurance through employers, traveling by public transit, or fitness, that people would largely do anyway."