Kevin Page, the Parliamentary Budget Officer, is right to have drawn attention this month to a recent OECD survey, which found Canada’s interim reporting of government spending to be slower and less detailed than most of the 24 other countries considered. What’s more, his office has performed an admirable service by setting up an “integrated monitoring database” that helps MPs, senators and citizens scrutinize the government’s financial performance.
Speaking loosely, Mr. Page said to the Hill Times that his office is trying to facilitate parliamentary “discussion in more a real-time type of context.” Paul Dewar, an NDP MP, went further, saying, “You have ... to be able to project and keep track of spending in real time.” Simultaneity is all very well as an ideal. In fact, though, the PBO will be supplying quarterly reports from its new database, with a time lag of about 60 days – which should do the trick.
The true purpose of prompt interim reporting is to allow parliamentarians to compare the estimates that MPs had previously voted on with the government’s actual spending – or lack of it – comfortably inside one annual budgetary cycle.
In the absence of the PBO’s database, there has been a time lag of 20 months. Consequently, the members of the House of Commons have habitually been more than a year behind; they have not been in a position to consider the government’s main estimates – presented before the fiscal year starts on April, in the light or shadow of the previous year's estimates, and then to deliberate in an adequately informed way about the budget, on the basis of experience.
The database allows its readers to see any striking divergences between projected and actual spending – whether the change is upwards or downwards.
Much of the controversy around Mr. Page has had to do with predictions about the Canadian economy and specific categories of expenditure, such as the expected increase in incarceration. In the long run, however, his greatest contribution may turn out to be his enhancement of Parliament’s ability to scrutinize spending – which is at the core of government accountability.