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Harper defends pay raises for political staff at time of budget belt-tightening

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks during a campaign event in Vancouver, British Columbia April 16, 2011. Harper announced that a re-elected Conservative government will build on its tough-on-crime approach, and pledged to end sentencing discounts for child sex offenders, expand drug-use monitoring in prisons and double the victim surcharge.

Ben Nelms/Reuters/Ben Nelms/Reuters

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is defending pay raises for Conservative political staffers at a time of budget belt-tightening.

Mr. Harper was asked Saturday about new rules which could result in a financial win-win for Tory aides in ministerial offices regardless of whether the Conservatives win or lose the May 2nd election.

The guidelines quietly went into effect on April 1, boosting the maximum salary political staffers can be paid. They also hike by 50 per cent the maximum separation pay they can receive should they find themselves suddenly out of work.

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Those changes come into effect as Harper's Conservatives are vowing to cut $4-billion a year from the federal budget.

Mr. Harper suggested the pay boost is strictly due to the fact that political staffers' salaries are tied to those in the civil service, which are in line for an increase. He didn't mention that it was the rule changes earlier this month that tied the two together.

"The pay raises we're talking about are pay raises across the board," Mr. Harper said.

"They're not for political staffers. These are government employee pay raises and our political staffers are simply tied to those."

Mr. Harper acknowledged that salaries will rise for some individuals but he said, overall, the budgets for ministers' offices will be cut 11 per cent.

However, a document obtained by The Canadian Press says some of those savings could be strictly accounting changes.

The cost of international travel for ministers, their staff and parliamentary secretaries is now being transferred from ministerial office budgets to their departments.

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Departments will also have to absorb the cost of offering maximum separation pay of six months to political staffers. That's on top of severance pay.

Mr. Harper saluted his outgoing Treasury Board Minister Stockwell Day, who is retiring, for helping control ministerial budgets.

"There may be some individual increases for people but the budgets of ministers' offices are being cut by 11 per cent - that's what the Conservative government is doing," he said.

"That's the kind of thing Canadians expect us to do."

Mr. Harper is spending two days targeting key ridings around Vancouver, where the Tories are trying to take seats away from the Liberals and NDP.

A volatile three-party race is shaping up in British Columbia, and the Tories see several ridings around Vancouver as ripe for the picking in their quest for the dozen extra seats across Canada that would give them a majority government.

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Mr. Harper continued his outreach to new Canadians when he addressed a massive Sikh street festival in the Vancouver-South riding of Liberal incumbent Ujjal Dosanjh, who barely held the seat with 20 votes in 2008.

Mr. Dosanjh was also on hand, addressing the festival in Punjabi, and ripping into the government's record on family reunification. Afterwards, the former B.C. premier said he was in the political fight of his life.

"It's a hotly contested riding, you know that. The Prime Minister is here. Why do you think he is here?"

Mr. Harper praised Sikhism, and called Sikhs courageous, hard-working and successful.

"These principles are also important to us here in Canada, because ours is a country defined by its belief in freedom democracy and justice, values that have attracted people from around the world to our shores, including the growing numbers of Canada's Sikh community," he said.

Earlier, Mr. Harper promoted his platform promises on crime. Those changes would force sexual attackers to pay more into a victims' fund and would punish inmates who fail drug tests.

And he also took few extra swipes the NDP, which the prime minister acknowledged is stronger in B.C. than elsewhere in the country.

Mr. Harper was asked about the bonuses ministerial staffers have been given in the past, which, in one case, drove up an employee's annual salary by $35,000 to $190,000.

The prime minister's aides moved swiftly to dispel any notion that political staffers would be getting raises or bonuses.

The guidelines also removed salary "floors", so that ministers' staff could be paid less than the minimum amount set for any particular position, said Harper spokesman Andrew MacDougall.

"This is nothing new," Mr. MacDougall said. "It does not mean that political staffers will get pay raises."

But Liberals disputed the Conservative numbers, accusing Mr. Harper and several of his ministers of allowing their budgets to "spiral out of control."

"Conservative cabinet ministers have increased their spending by 16.5 per cent in the last two years - from $58-million to $68-million - far above the rate of inflation," said Liberal spokeswoman Kate Purchase.

Citing the government's public accounts, the Liberals said spending was up 31 per cent in Mr. Harper's office, up a whopping 234 per cent in the office of Tory whip Gordon O'Connor, and up 97 per cent at Transport and Infrastructure under John Baird and Chuck Strahl.

Mr. Harper was addressing party faithful in the Liberal-held riding of Vancouver-Quadra, one of several the Tories are targeting this weekend. Liberal Joyce Murray won the riding by just 150 votes in 2008.

But Mr. Harper made it clear that the NDP was a force to be reckoned with in this province. He refused to be drawn into a discussion on the HST, which is hugely unpopular in B.C., but used the subject to attack NDP Leader Jack Layton.

"I think it's important that British Columbians understand what the federal issue here is. The federal issue is the federal sales tax," Mr. Harper said.

"The Conservative government lowered that tax from seven, to six to five per cent. Mr. Layton and the NDP oppose that decision, and they oppose it to this day."

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