Federal cuts could be catastrophic, union says

Several major government departments have been asked to come up with a plan to cut their spending by 10 per cent much faster than expected, CBC News has learned.

Public Works, Foreign Affairs, Defence asked to cut more, more quickly

Treasury Board President Tony Clement has told some federal departments they must cut deeper and faster than previously announced. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The federal government is accelerating and deepening its plans to eliminate the deficit despite slow growth projections and a lacklustre job market.

Several major government departments have been asked to come up with a plan to cut spending by 10 per cent over the next two fiscal years — that is, by the end of 2013-14 — CBC News has learned.

That's a change from last year's budget, in which the government promised to find savings of five per cent in annual program spending by the end of 2014-15.

To achieve that, the government had originally asked all federal departments to find between five and 10 per cent worth of savings over three years.

Now senior government sources say the overall cut to program spending at the three-year mark will be higher: about 7.5 per cent of current spending levels.

Several major departments have been asked to participate in the accelerated cuts, including Public Works, National Defence, Foreign Affairs and CSIS.

Deputy ministers told to cut faster

Just before Christmas, the Conservative government's special Treasury Board subcommittee that was overseeing the cuts concluded its consultations with senior bureaucrats.

Sources say that during those consultations, Treasury Board President Tony Clement pulled some deputy ministers aside and told them they had to go further. They learned their departments were expected to find cuts of 10 per cent over two years.

Canada's largest public service union, the Public Service Alliance of Canada, says Canadians should be worried.

President John Gordon says the original plan to cut five per cent over three years would have badly harmed services. He says going any deeper or faster could be catastrophic.

"That's going to be devastating to the services that are provided," he said.

Gordon pointed to ways in which Canadians are already feeling the loss of services — from long delays for employment insurance cheques to the loss of search and rescue services based in Newfoundland.

He said more severe cuts will make for an even grimmer outlook.

"All of those things are there. We've asked the question but we can't get answers. Nobody will speak about it. All they keep [saying] is, we'll hear when the budget comes out. Well, that worries me," Gordon said.

He's heard many rumours that the government's target for the cuts has been getting larger. But because the consultations have all been behind closed doors, his union is unclear what the result will be.

Politically, the government may be trying to accelerate the worst of the cuts in order to give itself more than a year between the end of the cuts and the next federal election, slated for fall 2015.

That revised schedule would give the Conservatives some time to do damage control.