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Bon Appetit from Stephen Harper! New campaign takes on cuts to public services

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With omnibus budget after omnibus budget being thrust upon us by our friends in the Harper government, it can become difficult to keep track of what specifically we're losing. Many who are troubled by the deep cuts to government spending the Conservatives have made would nevertheless have trouble pointing to specific cuts which have impacted their lives.

The Quebec and National Capital Region sections of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, whose members are most directly affected by the cuts, plan to change that. 

In partnership with Quebec communications firm Tope là!, the union is rolling out a series of four short videos, each highlighting a different aspect of government services we all rely upon which will be affected by Harper's cuts. In French these videos will be showcased on a central website (harpernousdeteste.ca) and will eventually be accompanied by an interactive tool, the nature of which is being kept hush hush for the moment. 

Although there will be English and French versions of the videos, the website will be available in French only. Which is too bad, because this campaign is everything the late and unlamented PSAC squirrel campaign was not: coherent, slick and effective. I hope the union reconsiders and makes it available in both official languages. 

The first video, which was launched today and is embedded below, is a short, biting jab at cuts to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, which PSAC argues will affect the safety of the food we all eat. 

Cheekily titled "Bon appetit from Stephen Harper," the video shows an older gentleman who treats his food with a reverence most often reserved for religious sacraments preparing a hamburger. The music and tone become increasingly ominous as the clip progresses and the viewer is left wanting to scream "don't eat that!" as one would "don't go in there!" at a horror movie. 

The titles at the end point out that Harper has cut $56 million from food inspection, and promise that we will all get a taste of these cuts. 

In accompanying briefing notes (available on the union's website), PSAC point out that "the number of food-safety inspectors is returning to what it was in 2008." That of course was the year when Maple Leaf foods sold meat tainted with listeriosis, a crisis which killed twenty-two people. An investigation later laid the blame for that mess squarely on a shortage of federal inspectors. 

In a bid to lower costs the CFIA has already axed the verification of nutritional claims on labels (look for candy bars to start claiming to be chock full of vitamins and minerals any day now) and a number of other key programs meant to keep Canadians safe. 

Meanwhile the inspectors still employed at the CFIA spend most of their time reviewing reports generated by the companies themselves rather than, you know, inspecting anything. This is thanks to new policies which ask companies to police themselves, producing reports for CFIA inspectors to pore over, and drastically reduce on-site inspections. 

It's a sorry state of affairs for anyone who doesn't want the food on their plate to poison them. Even before these cuts, the union says many experts were blaming gutted budgets at the CFIA for the food crises at Maple Leaf and at XL Foods in 2012. How bad can things get, with another 8% slashed from the budget of our only line of defence against food born illnesses? 

Only time will tell, but the union does provide some sobering statistics. They cite internal projections which suggest that 500 full time jobs may be lost by the end of 2015. They also note that 300 of their members have lost their jobs at the CFIA in the past year, and 100 of those were front line food inspectors. 

It's enough to make me distinctly uneasy about the food I eat, and I imagine I'm not alone. Conservative or progressive, I think we can all agree that food safety deserves better than to be made a political football by this government.

But food security is only the beginning. Over the coming month PSAC-Quebec and PSAC-NCR will be unveiling videos exposing the consequences of cuts to airline security, environmental protection and the hot button issue of employment insurance. The English versions of the videos will be displayed on the PSAC-National Capital Region’s YouTube channel.

These are just some of the consequences of 10.8 billion dollars in cuts which Harper will have made to the public service by 2015. These cuts will also result in the loss of over 35,000 jobs, a hit which it is hard to imagine will be borne without drastic reductions to front line government services which thousands of Canadians use each day. 

According to Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, these cuts are simple savings accomplished by "eliminating waste" and making government "leaner and more efficient". However, PSAC cite Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page who reports that spending on "Internal Services" (the sort of bloated bureaucracy Flaherty promised to trim) has actually increased significantly, while "the focus of restraint exercises has instead been on reduced spending to front line services."

The purpose of omnibus legislation is to sneak so many bad things through at once that no can keep track or register them all. Kudos to PSAC for unpacking the very real consequences of this government's slash and burn approach to public services. I look forward to watching this campaign roll out over the next month.

Twitter: @EthanCoxMTL

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