Treasury Board president Tony Clement is defending proposed legislation that could curtail some federal employees' right to strike.

The federal government tabled a budget bill Tuesday that would give the government the exclusive right to designate essential services.

Clement argued on Wednesday that the government needs that power to modernize the public service.

He called it "completely ridiculous" that, as an employer, the government needs to bargain with unions to decide which services it provides are essential and which employees must stay on the job in the event of a dispute.

Clement said he feels the changes could lead to more disputes being resolved through arbitration, which he said was "better for everybody."

'A poisoned workplace'

Unions said the move to modify the Public Service Labour Relations Act, which took them by surprise when it was included in the throne speech on Oct. 16, was more dramatic than they could have expected.

The country's largest public sector union, the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), said federal employees would see the changes to their right to strike as an attack on their collective rights.

"The federal public sector workplace is a poisoned workplace because of the cuts, because of the way this government operates under the shroud of [secrecy]," said Chris Aylward, PSAC's executive vice-president, adding that it would only lead to more anxiety.

"Look, I know some of the union bosses are upset and they're going to light their hair on fire and say how horrible this is," said Clement.

"But I actually think having an excellent public service is in the interest of public servants as well as for Canadians."

Designations would be reasonable, Clement says

When asked by reporters how people could be assured that the federal government wouldn't designate every public service job as essential, Clement said he is required under administrative law and principles of judicial review to be reasonable in those designations.

The changes to the designation of essential services should be seen as another step in the government's attempt to modernize the public service, Clement said.

He has earlier announced controversial initiatives to modify performance evaluations and reform sick days and disability benefits.

Taken together, Clement said the initiatives would lead to a competent public service in which people who do their jobs well are promoted, while those who don't are shifted out of a system that he said cannot afford to have "mediocrity."