A "secret deal" that will grant a three per cent pay hike to 33,700 Ontario civil servants after the fall election had the governing Liberals on the defensive Thursday, as critics accused them of making "phoney" promises to freeze public sector wages.
The Progressive Conservatives tag-teamed acting premier Dwight Duncan in the legislature over the deal, which was signed in late 2008 as the province was heading into years of multibillion-dollar deficits.
They demanded that Duncan, who was sitting in for an absent Premier Dalton McGuinty, come clean about any other "secret deals" the government signed with other unions that kick in after the Oct. 6 election.
"Everything about this secret deal to hand out a secret pay increase shows that Premier McGuinty will do anything to stay in power," said Tory critic John O'Toole. "He sent you to do the dog-and-pony show and pretend wage restraints were coming, but he knew all along there was a secret deal to top up the salaries of 38,000 OPSEU employees by an extra one per cent that kicks in after the election."
The accord with the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, which was disclosed Wednesday during a labour relations board hearing, will grant an overall three per cent pay hike in 2012 to members of the province's largest public-sector union.
Government lawyers tried to keep the accord under wraps, but were compelled to disclose documents at the hearing which revealed an "adjustment" of one per cent on top of a scheduled two per cent increase in 2012 — after the provincial election.
"Wouldn't it have been cheaper, acting premier, and more subtle just to stand outside polling stations and hand out cash?" said Progressive Conservative Peter Shurman.
Duncan, who made the promise to freeze wages in his 2010 budget, insisted the deal will save taxpayers money.
"In fact, there was no secret deal," he said. "Side letters are quite common in these circumstances. The overall settlements are down across the public and broader public sectors."
Asked why government lawyers tried to keep it secret if it was such a good deal for taxpayers, Duncan said bargaining in public can "make it difficult."
"There was a legitimate bargaining situation," he said outside the chamber. "This is done by municipalities, this is done by governments all over. I mean, you can't bargain necessarily everything in public."
The four-year agreement with OPSEU provided an annual increase of two per cent in the last three years, with a commitment to pay an extra one per cent in the final year, said Duncan's spokesman Andrew Chornenky.
At the time, unions were seeking a pay increase of three per cent a year, he said. The deal also included a number of concessions on benefits and other entitlements that resulted in savings of 1.25 per cent.
"It actually worked out to be a good deal for taxpayers," Duncan said. "And if other unions are prepared to come to the table for those concessions, I'd be happy to talk to them."
But opposition parties say it shows that after nearly eight years in power, the Liberals are growing more secretive despite their claims of making government more open and transparent.
"The most important issue before us right now is the fact that this government hid the information from the public," said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.
It's another example of the Liberals keeping the public in the dark, from the secret law passed ahead of the G20 summit in Toronto last summer to the severance packages of public sector executives who make over $100,000 a year, she said.
Opposition Leader Tim Hudak said the Liberals are hiding costs from families who'll have to foot the bill after the election.
"There is no doubt that the McGuinty Liberals see the provincial treasury as their slush fund to try to buy votes in the next election campaign," he said.
The documents disclosing the OPSEU deal were revealed during proceedings dealing with a labour complaint by the bargaining agent for 12,000 professional and supervisory public servants.
The Association of Management, Administrative and Professional Crown Employees of Ontario has alleged that the government engaged in unfair labour practices.
Chornenky said the association made the complaint because it didn't get the same deal as OPSEU.
"They simply didn't negotiate as good a deal, and are complaining to the Labour Relations Board about that," he said in an email.
Last year, Duncan called for a two-year freeze on wages for more than a million public sector workers to help fight a record provincial deficit of about $20 billion. But it has largely failed to materialize.
Efforts to curb wages have been frustrated by several rulings by independent arbitrators, who have awarded pay raises despite the government's wishes. But the Liberals have repeatedly refused to introduce legislation to impose the freeze.
Some municipalities have complained that the government isn't practising what it preaches by handing the Ontario Provincial Police a five per cent increase, which was finalized last November.
They argue it puts them in a tight spot by driving up the costs of policing when everyone's tightening their belts. Even if they're not using OPP, local police forces will likely ask for the same increase, they say.
Toronto police officers are expected to become the highest paid in the country if they ratify a new tentative deal that provides salary increases totalling 11.5 per cent over the next four years.
Shurman, who was on the warpath about the secret deal for civil servants, was less critical about the police hike in Canada's most populous city.
"What I can say is that we support our police, that we believe they do a job for us, that they have a right to sit down with their employer to negotiate, which apparently they have done," he said.
"That's not controlled by the provincial purse."