Tories still open to negotiations with public service, despite already booking savings in budget

Above: The government and public servants are gearing up to go head to head in a fight over benefits. Treasury Board President Tony Clement and Robyn Benson, national president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada have their say.

The government is still willing to negotiate with the public service, whose members took a hit in last week’s budget, Treasury Board President Tony Clement said — despite having already booked the savings and used that money as a means to help balance the budget.

“We’ve had discussions and negotiations with the main bargainers on behalf of the union for several months now … so we feel that we have tried to get some accommodations, some kind of negotiated settlement,” Clement said Sunday in an interview on The West Block with Tom Clark.

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“In the absence of that, we feel that it is prudent to book these things in the budget. Having said that, negotiations are still possible, to some extent they still continue.”

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Last Tuesday’s budget contained $7.4 billion in estimated savings over six years from cutting some public service compensation.

At the core of the proposal is a change to the health benefits available to retired bureaucrats, which would see a shift from the government paying 75 per cent of the plan’s costs to sharing the cost equally with pensioners.

Further, the threshold for eligibility would move to six years from the current two.

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Health benefits, as well as public service sick days, are the “major items” Clement said he is currently eyeing.

“We’ve already had success on other major items,” he said, pointing to the Conservatives’ move to end an expensive “voluntary severance” payout to which all public servants benefitted until recently, as well as changing the pension scheme for public servants so they share the cost equally with the government.

But the proposed change to the health benefits announced in Budget 2014 is a non-starter, said Robyn Benson, national president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada.

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As to whether the public service is drawing a line in the sand and preparing for battle with the government, she said simply she is “strong in her resolve” and prepared to represent her members to the best of her ability.

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“Mr. Clement is right, we’ve had some discussions, and we’ve clearly articulated we’re not going there,” she said. “It’s not a rich plan to begin with. We’re not out of the norm in terms of a 75/25 split.”

The proposal to move to a 50/50 contribution split is disrespectful to members of the public service, Benson said.

“Our members are really proud to provide services for Canadians. They work hard day in and day out,” she said. “When they have a president of the treasury board indicating they don’t … I think it’s really difficult. I think that they’re being disrespectful to our members and the morale is at an all-time low.”

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