09/18/2014 08:18 EDT | Updated 06/16/2017 00:57 EDT

Gaétan Barrette, doctors' federations square off over raises

Health Minister Gaétan Barrette says Quebec's public purse is facing straits so dire that the government needs to change the nature of its salary agreement with the province's doctors.

"It's a change. It's some sort of a breach of the agreement that we had, but what are we facing today? We've never faced in my time in terms of negotiations, we've never faced a situation as dire as we are today," he told CBC Daybreak on Thursday.

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That breach is causing tensions to mount between the province and its medical specialists as negotiations continue over the $1.2 billion set for doctors' pay raises.

The Liberal government wants to spread the $1.2 billion in raises for general practitioners and medical specialists over nine years.

Originally the two doctors’ federations were asking for the raises, which are valued between $900 million and $1.2 billion, to be spread over six years.

The general practitioners’ federation, the FMOQ, has since revised their offer to seven years.

Barrette told CBC Daybreak on Thursday that the specialists have a lot to learn from the general practitioners’ willingness to negotiate. He said earlier this week that the specialists have not come to the negotiating table with meaningful concessions.

Negotiating in bad faith?

The source of the tension comes from an agreement signed in 2007 between the province’s doctors and the health minister of the time, Philippe Couillard. The agreement included a salary increase through 2015-2016.

Now, Barrette — a doctor himself — finds himself pitted against his former colleagues, trying to push forward an austerity budget as the Liberals attempt to balance the books by 2016.

Diane Francoeur, the head of the specialists’ federation, said Barrette is negotiating in bad faith and not portraying the negotiations faithfully.

She said her federation is making concessions, and believes Barrette is acting in his own political and personal interests. 

“We ask the prime minister to tell Mr. Barrette to be respectful in the way he said he would do politics differently,” she said.

Dire public finances

On Daybreak on Thursday, host Mike Finnerty asked Barrette how he responded to Francoeur’s accusation.

“It is a common tactic,” he said.

“I’ve used it myself in the past, to go public and to try to put the focus elsewhere than what is really at stake here, which is $1.2 billion that we have to spend. We are in dire times in terms of public finances and the issue is about spreading the amount versus services at some point.”

The stakes are high and both sides are digging in, meaning the province could be in for some very difficult labour negotiations as the Liberals look to cull $3 billion from its budget.