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Treasury Board President Tony Clement responds to a question in the House of Commons on May 1, 2013.ADRIAN WYLD/The Canadian Press

Conservative plans for public service reform include a focus on turfing poor performers as the government girds for a fight with "union bosses" and defends proposed new powers over independent Crown corporations.

Treasury Board President Tony Clement triggered strong reaction this week after telling The Globe and Mail that new cabinet powers over Crown corporations will be used to "key in on" spending at Canada Post, the CBC and Via Rail. But the minister also outlined plans for changes within traditional government departments that he said can be implemented outside of the collective bargaining process.

Mr. Clement said he hopes to strengthen the "performance management" system inside government that involves discussions between managers and staff.

"I think it is perfectly reasonable for management to work with an underperformer, try to get him or her up to performance standards and, if that fails after successive tries, then I think that we have the right to say that perhaps this job isn't for you," he told The Globe this week. "…That goes to the management function that hasn't been looked at recently, to be honest with you."

The minister, who is responsible for controlling spending and dealing with public service unions, said a stronger focus on poor performers will be welcomed by good employees.

"Other people say, 'Why am I working hard when this other person is not achieving the goals of the organization and there seems to be no accountability for that?' These things have a degrading effect on performance in the public service, and that's why it's important for everybody, including other public servants, that we review these issues," he said.

Promises to reform performance management have come and gone several times over the years at Treasury Board. A 2011 survey of federal public servants – the most recent available – found that only 45 per cent of respondents agreed there are "effective mechanisms in place to deal with poor performers" in their work unit. The percentage of respondents who disagreed was 40 per cent. However, the survey also found that 70 per cent of respondents said they receive useful feedback on job performance from their supervisor, and 75 per cent said their immediate supervisor assesses their work against identified goals and objectives.

Canada's largest union of federal employees, the Public Service Alliance of Canada, said it has received no indication that changes are coming to the existing performance management policy.

"If the government is interested in performance management, it is going to have to make a serious investment in training its managers so that whatever system is developed is not used to further downsize or penalize employees in a discriminatory manner," PSAC national president Robyn Benson in a statement. "Our members are proud of the work they do and would welcome feedback."

Meanwhile, union leaders, academics and opposition parties reacted strongly to proposed new government powers that are contained in the latest budget bill, introduced this week. The bill allows cabinet to impose wage and benefit policies at Crown corporations and allows Treasury Board employees to sit in on collective bargaining negotiations at Crown corporations.

George Smith, a former CBC vice-president of human resources who now teaches collective bargaining at Queen's University School of Public Policy Studies, said the government's proposed new powers are unprecedented.

"That goes against decades of industrial relations policy in this country and I think it's reprehensible," he said. "There's been no discussion or debate about this and there's no sense that this is what the Canadian public wants."

Conservative parliamentary secretary Pierre Poilievre defended the new powers over Crown corporations and said they are about saving taxpayers money and keeping taxes low. "I am not here to take marching orders from union bosses," he said.

Both NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau spoke out against the changes, arguing they go against the basic principle of independence for Crown corporations.

"Today's International Workers Day. This is the gift from the Conservative government," Mr. Mulcair said on Wednesday. "Another example of downward pressure on working conditions and salaries."

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