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As Flaherty prepares to take on public service, he owes Ontario a thank-you

Ontario's austerity budget, released Tuesday, offers splendid political cover for the Harper government.

The federal Conservatives are about to take on the public-service unions. That confrontation will be long, loud and painful, with union leaders going to the wall in defence of long-standing prerogatives. But public opinion is likely to turn against them, if only because much the same confrontation will be underway in Ontario. Each government, in that sense, will be helping the other's cause.

At Queen's Park, Finance Minister Dwight Duncan is resolved to bring his province's frighteningly high deficit under control by imposing wage freezes on the public service.

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Federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty is resolved to go much farther. In his budget, to be released Thursday, the Conservatives plan to eliminate the federal deficit at least two years before Ontario balances its books through system-wide cuts to government programs, which will lead to thousands of job losses across the public service.

But the Conservatives are discovering just how hard it can be to dismiss a public servant. Collective agreements protect a lengthy, elaborate and cumbersome seniority-based process. Older workers can force out younger workers, even if a younger worker is more qualified and productive than whoever is replacing her.

There are 18 major bargaining units in the federal public service. As each contract comes up for renewal, the unions will find an employer demanding far greater flexibility in choosing whom to keep and whom to let go, whom to reward with merit pay and whom to put on notice. The unions will fight to protect the rights of workers from arbitrary dismissal. There are bound to be strikes.

The unions will argue that the Harper government is once again employing the ruthless bullying tactics for which the Tories are famous. But the Conservatives will point to public sector contract disputes from Halifax to Toronto to British Columbia as proof that governments everywhere are being forced to limit or freeze increases in public-sector salaries.

It will be particularly helpful to the Conservatives if the Liberal McGuinty government, which has long sought to be known as the working man's friend, is also at war with its unions. The fact that both the Ontario and federal governments are demanding changes to pension contributions and benefits will also be mutually reinforcing.

Each government, in effect, will have the other's back whether it wants to or not, as both set about reining in the salaries and entitlements of their workforce. However much Mr. Flaherty, who was himself an Ontario finance minister, has criticized Mr. Duncan's alleged profligacy in the past, in this case he owes his Ontario cousin a thank-you.

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About the Author

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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