Bennett says public-sector layoffs ‘on the table’

overnment looking for proposals to slash 30 per cent spending in every department

James McLeod jmcleod@thetelegram.com
Published on January 20, 2016
Rhonda Hayward/The Telegram
Minister of Finance and President of Treasury Board Cathy Bennett disusses the Government Renewal Initiative with the media at Confederation Building Wednesday.

Finance Minister Cathy Bennett says the government must look at the possibility of public-sector layoffs to get the budget deficit under control.

The new Liberal government is looking for all government departments, agencies, boards and commissions to submit proposals for slashing 30 per cent of spending over the next three years.

Speaking to reporters Wednesday afternoon, Bennett was at pains to say no decisions are made, but “everything is on the table” — including layoffs.

If the Liberals go down that road, it will mean they’re breaking a promise Premier Dwight Ball made loudly and repeatedly during the November election campaign, when he said public-sector job cuts would not happen under a Liberal administration.

During the election campaign, Ball posted a message on Twitter saying, “Cutting jobs is not part of our plan. Under a new Liberal Government, public sector jobs are safe,” and he reiterated the same message again and again in speeches and interviews.

Now Bennett is delivering a very different message.

“Our position is that this is a very difficult fiscal situation that we’re faced with as a province,” Bennett said. “It is important for us to identify through the Government Renewal Initiative any and all options that are on the table.”

Around lunchtime Wednesday, an internal government document was leaked to several media outlets, including The Telegram, showing that the Liberals are looking for proposals to slash spending by 30 per cent.

“The Government Renewal Initiative is requesting departments and ABCs to identify savings totalling thirty per cent of their 2015-16 expenditures over the next three fiscal years,” the document said. “A specific target has not been set for each year, but departments and ABCs should be prepared to implement accepted proposals as early as possible.”

The Government Renewal Initiative is the Executive Council body overseen by the Premier’s Office which is mapping out the upcoming budget.

With oil trading below $28 per barrel, the government is running a deficit of about $2 billion, and the Liberals say drastic action must be taken to get the situation under control.

Bennett said the 30 per cent number is just a “blue sky” target which will force all corners of government to come up with “bold and innovative ideas” and leave no stone unturned.

She said the government isn’t necessarily going to implement all the proposals, but it wants to hear every single possible idea.

Progressive Conservative Leader Paul Davis and NDP Leader Earle McCurdy were quick to point out this is a direct contradiction of what the Liberals said during the election campaign.

“To cut 30 per cent in three years is going to be a huge task. It’s going to mean cutting programs and services,” Davis said. “There’s no way they can cut 30 per cent without slashing jobs. No way at all.”

McCurdy also said making the sorts of huge cuts the Liberals are talking about would do more harm than good to the province.

“Anything even close to that number in an economy that’s in recession would really compound the problem,” McCurdy said. “Those are extreme numbers.”