Published On Sun Apr 15 2012 http://www.thestar.com
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty prepares to speak about Canada’s new budget at the The Canadian Club of Toronto in late March.
Aaron Vincent Elkaim/THE CANADIAN PRESS
By Tim Harper National Affairs Columnist
The list of fires licking at the feet of the governing Conservatives so far in 2012 was not supposed to include cuts to the public sector.
These were, as Finance Minister Jim Flaherty assured us, merely a slice into the fat of “back-office operations” in a flabby bureaucracy.
“They don’t relate to service delivery by government,’’ he said on budget eve.
But during a week when MPs were absent from the capital, union leaders capably and aggressively stepped into the void and Stephen Harper’s government may have yet another communications battle on its hands.
Day-by-day, we were warned of border gaps caused by the cuts, gaps to be exploited by those bringing drugs, weapons and child pornography across the border.
Terrorists, hardened criminals and sexual predators will find it easier to enter, we were told.
The Conservatives even laid off 19 dogs employed at Canadian Border Services Agency.
Food safety alarms were sounded. Watch out for a return of e coli and listeria — just in time for barbecue season, union leaders warned ominously.
An oil spill on the west coast will become an unmitigated disaster because the Vancouver office of the Environmental Emergencies Program, which oversees the clean-up of spills in federal waters and First Nations communities, is closing, along with offices in Edmonton, Toronto, Dartmouth, N.S. and St. John’s, N.L.
Nothing but fear-mongering by union leaders, the Conservatives charged.
And, in fact, much of it was.
That is, after all, what the unions involved must do to highlight the effects of the cutbacks — in essence, drag them out of that back office and show Canadians that the basic services provided by their members will be felt by taxpayers if 19,200 jobs are ultimately eliminated.
They have also raised concerns about food nutrition labelling and oversight of air, marine, rail and road safety.
Previous cuts to Service Canada have already caused a drastic reduction in employment processing centres and longer wait time for employment insurance benefits and Old Age Security payments.
Government ministers believe they can ride out this storm.
Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, for one, has flatly denied that food safety will be put at risk even as the union representing the agriculture sector says decisions were made arbitrarily with no input from frontline workers.
Neither side is telling the entire story, and it will take time to determine whether any of these allegations by the unions come to pass.
But the charges create two problems for the Conservatives.
One, of course, is that the perception of eroding services will stick.
They will stick with their political opponents.
But if it becomes common wisdom that national security is weakened at a time when a security perimeter program with the United States is struggling for traction, how will the Conservative base react to a law-and-order government making the border more porous?
It would take but one incident to blacken the Harper reputation for tough border security he has promised to maintain while speeding the flow of cross-border traffic under the deal with the U.S.
The second danger, of course, is that it opens up another front for NDP leader Thomas Mulcair to make the argument that his party can provide superior public administration to the government.
Sunday, at the provincial NDP convention in Hamilton, Mulcair accused the Conservatives of compromising food and air safety.
“It is sometimes easy on the part of the government to attack civil servants because they don’t always have good press but we tend to forget that the civil servants are providing a civil service,’’ Mulcair said.
“They are cutting back on things that affect public safety and public protection.”
Already handed the F-35 fiasco, look for Mulcair and his caucus to pick up the union message about services and drag the cuts out of the back office themselves.
The Conservatives have opened a lot of space for a new opposition leader intent on convincing Canadians that his New Democrats can be trusted with the keys to the treasury.
Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday. firstname.lastname@example.org