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Stephen Harper writes open letter to Canada’s public service, tries to correct ‘misinformation’

JASON FEKETE, OTTAWA CITIZEN

After taking swipes on the campaign trail at bureaucrats in Ottawa, Stephen Harper says the Conservatives are the party to best protect the interests of federal public servants and are proud of Canada’s “world-class public service.”

Harper released an open letter Thursday thanking public servants for their hard work implementing government policies and cutting red tape. He also tried to correct “misinformation” he says is being spread by opposition parties and unions about the government’s plans on sick leave and pensions.

With Conservatives facing tough challenges in a number of Ottawa-area constituencies – including John Baird’s former riding of Ottawa West-Nepean – the Tories put on a full-court press Thursday to try to solidify support in the National Capital Region and counter recent public service commitments from the NDP and Liberals.

Senior Ottawa Conservative Pierre Poilievre, flanked by several other local Conservative candidates, unveiled Harper’s two-page letter.

“Canadians are well-served by our world-class public service, and I have seen this first-hand as Prime Minister. During our time in Government, we have worked with you to ensure your efforts are focused on the things that matter most to Canadians, and to create a healthier workplace where good work is recognized, red tape is removed, and benefits meet real needs,” Harper said in the open letter.

“Unfortunately, in the current election context, misleading statements are being made about certain issues that matter to you and your families, including sick leave and pension entitlements.”

The Conservatives have come under fire from public service unions and opposition parties over their plan to change sick leave for federal workers.

Sick leave is the main issue at collective bargaining with federal unions, but negotiations have slowed during the campaign. Thirteen of the 17 federal unions are seeking an injunction to stop the government from invoking powers it gave itself in omnibus budget Bill C-59 to unilaterally impose a new sick-leave agreement.

The bill lets the government override the Public Service Labour Relations Act and impose a new deal whenever it wants. Unions argue the changes violate their right to free and collective bargaining under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The Conservatives want to scrap the existing sick leave regime and replace it with a new short-term disability plan. The government proposes reducing the number of annual sick days a year from 15 to six and abolishing much of the 15 million days of banked unused sick leave.

In the letter, Harper said the “current, antiquated sick leave system is failing everyone,” and that the government’s goal is to reach agreements with unions that are “fair and reasonable for both employees and taxpayers.”

“The current sick leave system leaves gaps. The Government wants to fill those gaps so that, if you get sick, you have seamless support. Canadians are best served by a healthy and productive public service,” Harper said.

The Conservative leader also tried to reassure public servants the government has no plans for further changes to the public service pension plan and “will not be moving away” from the current defined-benefit plan to a defined-contribution plan, target benefit plan or any other kind of shared-risk model.

The government moved in 2012 to increase public servants’ pension contributions to 50 per cent, and it also increased the normal age of pensionable retirement for new federal employees to 65 from 60.

Harper has regularly targeted bureaucrats during stump speeches on the campaign trail, repeatedly trumpeting that dollars are better left in voters’ pockets than spent by the bureaucracy in Ottawa.

In his letter, Harper’s tone was different.

“Our Conservative government has been proud of the good work done by Canada’s public servants as we navigated the global economic recession, cut taxes on families and job-creating businesses, and balanced the budget,” he said.

Poilievre, meanwhile, told reporters “the biggest threat” to public servants is Justin Trudeau because of the Liberal plan to run $25 billion worth of deficits over the next three years.

“By adding three deficits and billions in debt, he’s going to have to cut public service jobs just a few years down the road. That is the reality,” Poilievre said.

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