The Conservative government's hope that attrition will ease the pain of government-wide budget cuts is proving to be wishful thinking.
About 100 public servants at the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency were told on Wednesday morning their jobs could soon be eliminated – the latest in an ongoing trickle of cuts as departments and agencies squeeze into tighter budgets.
The internal ACOA announcement included an acknowledgement that job losses can't be avoided.
"Despite our best efforts to achieve the required savings through attrition, we have determined this will not be sufficient," the agency's director general, Kent Estabrooks, wrote in a letter to the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, a union representing about 80 of the affected workers.
A government official stressed that while 104 workers received letters on Wednesday, it's expected that no more than 42 jobs will be lost by the end of the month-long process.
The budget for ACOA has already been cut by more than 30 per cent since 2006, leading to criticism that Prime Minister Stephen Harper is quietly starving a regional development agency he has never strongly supported.
"He campaigned many years ago that he was going to take out ACOA, and slowly but surely, he's cutting it off," Nova Scotia New Democratic MP Robert Chisholm said. "It's a further attack on Atlantic Canada."
John Gordon, the president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, says that acknowledgment that attrition isn't enough doesn't bode well for how departments will meet more onerous restraint targets that will come in the 2012 budget.
"This is just the tip of the iceberg and the squeeze is going to get tighter and tighter. The budget will bring down the real hammer," Mr. Gordon said.
The cuts at ACOA are the end result of strategic reviews that were much less aggressive than the strategic and operating review currently being led by a special cabinet committee.
The results of the latest review will be announced in the 2012 budget, which is expected in February or March. All federal departments have already submitted plans to a strategic review cabinet committee led by Treasury Board President Tony Clement. Those plans include proposals for 5-per-cent and 10-per-cent cuts. Members of the cabinet committee will review the proposals, meeting regularly throughout the fall and asking officials to appear before them to explain the consequences of their plans.
Mr. Clement said on Wednesday that he would not speculate on whether attrition will prevent the need for layoffs in the 2012 round of cuts.
"The whole purpose of this exercise in terms of the deficit-reduction review that I'm doing is not specifically about jobs in the public sector. It's actually about finding savings so that we can create jobs throughout the whole economy," he said.
The affected jobs held by PIPSC members pay $50,100 to $125,389 a year. Employees affected by these and other strategic-review cuts are offered help finding other jobs in government.
Mr. Harper was an advocate for ending ACOA and other regional development agencies when he was head of the Canadian Alliance party. He changed his position in his successful 2006 campaign, pledging to "maintain" ACOA's budget, which then stood at $456.4-million. The agency's budget is now $317.9-million and is projected to shrink to $278.5-million by 2013-14.
ACOA'S SHRINKING BUDGET
The promise: "We're going to maintain the budget for ACOA." - Conservative leader Stephen Harper, during a January, 2006, campaign stop in Halifax
$456.4-million: The ACOA budget at the time
$317.9-million: The ACOA budget now
$278.5-million: ACOA's projected budget for 2013-2014 (a 39-per-cent cut from 2005-06)