Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Stop playing politics with people's lives

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OTTAWA -- There's really no good way to tell people they're losing their jobs.

But there are ways to soften the blow.

The federal government is looking to cut discretionary spending -- that's bureaucratic speak for all the money it spends on its own programs. So it's not cutting transfers to the provinces or debt costs, just its own departments. It means a total of 19,200 jobs eliminated from April 1 onwards. About 12,000 will actually result in layoffs, the rest will come through attrition.

Many Canadians would agree it's an unpleasant necessity. Private businesses have gone through shrinking exercises repeatedly over the last few years. That the government should eventually do the same seems unavoidable, no matter how difficult it is to see people lose their jobs.

But telling thousands of people the day before Easter weekend begins that they possibly, maybe, sort of, kind of could lose their jobs eventually is a ridiculous way to dole out the cuts.

Letting unions know information that then is released to the public without full information from the government seems like a ridiculously poor communications strategy. It has led to confusion again and again over the last two weeks.

For a government with more than 1,500 communications staff working for cabinet ministers and their departments, it seems somewhat unacceptable the government can't properly communicate what's being cut and who is losing their job.

Whether it is from disorganization or, more likely, a political desire not to promote the fact people are losing their jobs, it seems a cruel and unusual exercise for all involved.

Since the budget came down March 29, more than 8,000 federal civil servants have been informed their jobs may or may not be lost.

The cuts run the gamut from food inspectors and border guards to military mediators and kitchen staff.

But instead of being able to tell managers who actually is losing a job, any employee connected to a section that could be affected receives a notice they could potentially lose their job. Even if only one of four jobs in a section is disappearing, all four employees will be told they might lose their job.

It is only over the coming weeks, months, possibly even years that the specifics of who will be laid off will be decided. Some people will find work in other departments; more than 12,000 will not.

It is pure torture for the employees and makes it difficult to even continue to deliver programs if people aren't sure what is there and what isn't.

The government is also not pulling its weight in announcing what projects, agencies, and divisions it really is cutting completely.

Closures are coming of an immigration office in Winnipeg and the Cereal Research Centre at the University of Manitoba. The National Aboriginal Health Organization will close this summer. There is word military housing in Winnipeg will be shuttered or sold.

University of Manitoba officials found out from the media the Cereal Research Centre on campus was closing. Several employees in Winnipeg in the Department of National Defence discovered their jobs were being eliminated through the media.

For more than 24 hours, it appeared as though the government was closing the Citizenship and Immigration Office in Winnipeg that processes visa and immigration applications. It set some people off on tangents, others in a panic.

It turned out, in fact, it was a smaller administrative office closing, with about seven total jobs lost. These are human resources and IT workers mainly, and most of their work is done by email and phone now, according to Immigration Minister Jason Kenney's office. Amalgamating six of these such offices (others are also closing in Edmonton, Lethbridge, Saskatoon and Regina) into one office in Calgary seems to make sense from an efficiency perspective.

So why couldn't the government have just said so in the first place, making an announcement of exactly what was happening rather than letting rumours fly around?

It's certainly not afraid to put out a news release announcing money it is spending, it should not be afraid to put out news releases announcing money it is cutting.

If the cuts the government is making are necessary and defensible, it should be upfront and announce them and defend them.

The government isn't just playing with politics here. It's playing with people's lives.

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 16, 2012 A12

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