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Finance Minister Jim Flaherty is slated to deliver the federal budget on March 22. (Chris Wattie/Reuters/Chris Wattie/Reuters)
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty is slated to deliver the federal budget on March 22. (Chris Wattie/Reuters/Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Globe Editorial

The feds are spending billions without looking at the bill Add to ...

Deciding how tax dollars are spent is among the chief duties of Members of Parliament. And yet, by the year, MPs' ability to keep an effective eye on the public purse is waning. It is a trend that is bad for democracy and for government, and ought to be rectified in the coming budget.

The problem is most evident with the government's criminal-justice proposals. We know how much jail time the Conservatives want criminals to serve, but not how much they want Canadians to spend - the government has the data, but says it's a cabinet confidence that can't be disclosed.

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Nor do MPs know much about the success of Conservative plans to reduce growth in the federal public service, or about how much the federal government is looking to spend on health care in upcoming negotiations with the provinces.

In other words, a budget that could trigger a federal election is being tabled in just two weeks, but the major factors that will determine whether the budget is a credible plan for taking the government out of deficit, are hidden from view.

MPs can compel change. They could, for instance, pass a motion saying that no major legislation should be introduced without a detailed outline of cost considerations over the next five or ten years, suggests C.E.S. Franks, a parliamentary scholar at Queen's University. Such motions are not binding, but they can have a shaming effect and would demonstrate a non-partisan commitment to transparency.

MPs also have allies within government. The Finance Department sets the budget, the overall spending plan for the government. Treasury Board Secretariat publishes the estimates, the detailed spending plans of departments. Both institutions are, by design and culture, hostile to open-ended programs.

There is also at least some goodwill to go by. Kevin Page, the Parliamentary Budget Officer, has condemned the government for hiding costing data. But he praises it for its overall accountability around the stimulus package. "We had objectives, expectations around employment and output, and all of that was provided before Parliament was asked to vote," said Mr. Page.

With the stimulus, the federal government wanted to tout the billions spent. Other expensive programs have less immediate payoffs. But MPs should know the expected cost of every major program. It is the only way to bring scrutiny to government. After all, that's what we send them to Parliament to do.

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