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Opinion Civil servants, gather your pensions and gird for the War of 2014

When I was entering the work force, a government job held no appeal. I considered the bureaucracy the place where creativity went to die, strangled by line managers obsessed with procedure over results. I cringed at the thought of winding up an organization man in Wallabees stuck in a cubicle in Tunney's Pasture, the 1950s-era cluster of government buildings in Ottawa modelled on Cold War Warsaw.

I now realize I was just being young and impractical. Friends and relatives who went to work for the federal government are among the happiest people I know. They've had fulfilling, iron-clad jobs with lots of opportunity for advancement. (In Ottawese, they've moved from AS-3 to AS-8.) Most retired in their 50s or plan to. Some travel the world, start second careers or pad their pension income as government consultants or contract workers. Life has been blissful in the public sector autarky that is Ottawa.

So, why does Tony Clement want to ruin a good thing? The Treasury Board President, the minister who negotiates Ottawa's labour contracts, is gearing up for a colossal confrontation with government unions. The Harper government's omnibus budget bill contains unprecedented measures that will tilt the collective bargaining process in Mr. Clement's favour as he seeks to rollback perks (such as bankable sick days) and implement performance evaluations to ditch the deadwood.

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And that's just the beginning. At this month's Conservative convention in Calgary, Mr. Clement was the most enthusiastic supporter of a resolution to bring public-sector compensation in line with private-sector remuneration. "For too long, there has been a major gap in wages and benefits between the public and private sector," he insisted. "This is not sustainable, it's not right, it's not conservative and it's not in the public interest."

Such talk resonates with ordinary Canadians who can't dream of pay and pensions on par with those of the workers who technically "serve" them. No matter that it will be harder for Mr. Clement to plead poverty given Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's projection this week of a $25-billion federal budget surplus between 2015 and 2019. Or that, after cutting almost 20,000 jobs from the public service since 2010, many departments are grappling with staff shortages and higher workloads.

Overall, the federal public service is up by about 25,000 jobs since Stephen Harper took power in 2006. But in a telling reminder of Mr. Harper's idea of the role of government, the expansion is entirely the result of massive hiring at the Canadian Border Services Agency, the Correctional Service of Canada, the RCMP and other law enforcement and spy agencies. The Conservative police state is thriving.

Former Privy Council clerk Mel Cappe recently warned that the federal public service is in "secular decline" because the Conservatives have no use for bright minds brimming with policy ideas. "Ideology doesn't need analysis," he told the Ottawa Citizen last month, "and if you have the answers, you don't need questions."

There probably isn't much sympathy for that view among average Canadians. Most see civil servants as spoiled children who have had it too good, for too long. Last year, some wore "Stephen Harper Hates Me" buttons to work, a stunt that struck many hard-working Canadians as unprofessional, if not infantile.

Besides, without a top-to-bottom overhaul of public-sector pensions, taxpayers are already on the hook for a $148-billion unfunded liability. That's the official amount; the C.D. Howe Institute figures the true sum is $118-billion more because Ottawa has overstated future returns on pension investments.

Another resolution at the Conservative convention called for the government to switch its employees over to defined-contribution pension plans. Mr. Clement hasn't gone that far yet, but he will have the entire Conservative base and much of the Canadian public onside as he pushes for big concessions in upcoming contract talks.

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Canadians who have seen their pensions eroded, if they're lucky enough to have them at all, are in no mood to grandfather the entitlements of civil servants who contributed comparatively little to their own retirement funds only to retire at 55 with nearly full-salary pensions. It's not enough to raise the retirement age and contribution rate for new hires. Current federal employees and retirees may face benefit cuts, too.

Get ready for the War of 2014 and the Battle of Tunney's Pasture.

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