Nova Scotia's top bureaucrat in the Finance Department is warning public sector employees not to expect a "dollar for dollar" return on any concessions they make during contract negotiations.

Deputy Minister George McLellan told a legislature committee Wednesday that taxpayers also need to benefit from any savings.

"If we find savings, then of course some of that would also appropriately be something that the public, taxpayers and others would expect," he said. According to McLellan, the money could go to "services or relief."

Both Premier Stephen McNeil and Finance Minister Randy Delorey have repeatedly said if public employees want wage increases over and above what is being offered, their unions need give up other benefits.

But McLellan has added a caveat: "We can't look at reducing our costs and turn it all back."

Give and take

The province is currently negotiating with teachers, offering them a five-year contract with a total of a two per cent wage increase.

Last month, the government told the Nova Scotia Teachers Union if it wanted larger wage increases, it would have to find ways to "deliver the same service for less."

McLellan suggested to members of the public accounts committee the province cannot continue to afford the salaries and benefits currently enjoyed by some public employees.

The head of the Nova Scotia Teacher's Union, Shelly Morse, has dismissed the province's approach to contract talks as "concession bargaining," and said her membership isn't interested in that kind of approach.

'I believe this is going to end up in the courts'

The head of the Nova Scotia Federation of Labour is accusing the McNeil government of unfair bargaining. 

"It's from a government that's dry on ideas and they say, 'Well we're going to paint a target on public sector workers and try to get everyone angry at them and they we can gouge them as much as we can,'" said Rick Clarke.

"I believe this is going to end up in the courts ... If this was a private sector employer negotiating in the public eye and the media like that, we'd be before the labour relations board with them."

McLellan told the committee this kind of give-and-take negotiation is the solution to balancing the province's budget. 

"That is a way forward and it is a way forward because we don't have any more money and yet we have extended ourselves beyond the norm on benefits," he said.

"There are things at play here. There are simple equations that we can simply recognize. And we could put those into discussion if we can get the passion down and put our past behind us." 

Benefits targetted

Progressive Conservative committee member Tim Houston supported that give-and-take approach.

"They definitely have put a target on the benefits side of the equation and it is a part of the equation that needs to be looked at for sure, so they're right to focus in that area," he said.

But interim NDP Leader Maureen MacDonald has taken a completely different view. She didn't think it was appropriate for anyone to be talking about negotiations. 

"Collective bargaining should take place at the bargaining table not on the floor of the legislature." 

According to a report by the province's auditor general, tabled last February, Nova Scotia has amassed huge liabilities as a result of post-employment benefits for public employees.