An article in an upcoming issue of the magazine Inside Policy is getting attention in political circles for its critique of the government’s budget process and for the fact it was written by two former Finance Department officials. But MPs on both sides of the aisle have been airing similar complaints for a long time. The article doesn’t offer much new insight into Ottawa’s desultory and secretive budget planning; what it does do is make it clear that, in spite of the honest desire of many to reform the system, Parliament continues to move in wrong direction.
The article was written by Scott Clark and Peter DeVries, both of whom had senior roles in the Finance department under Liberal governments but are seen by most to be non-partisan. However, there is a disingenuous tone to their piece when they state near the beginning that, “It is now recognized by most observers of the federal budget process, that the integrity and credibility of the process has been seriously eroded in recent years.” Define recent years, please. The erosion of Parliament’s “power of the purse” has been going on for 40 years, to the point that the solutions are now rote knowledge.
To wit, the House of Commons standing committee on government operations and estimates studied the issue of parliamentary scrutiny of estimates and supply last year, and rounded up the usual suspects in its report: eliminate or modify the deeming rule, which dates to 1968 and means that a committee that fails to meet its deadline to report on the budget will have been deemed to do so; release the estimates in a more timely fashion so they better reflect what’s in the actual budget; use the same budgetary methods in the estimates and budgets (cash vs. accrual); give MPs adequate time to study realistic numbers; and prevent governments from transferring funds between programs that have been allocated in the same vote. All of these obvious solutions to a serious set of well-identified problems have been known for decades, and many MPs are frustrated by their impotence in budgetary matters, but successive governments of all stripes have simply ignored the issue and continued to consolidate power in the Prime Minister’s Office and the cabinet.
If there is a new problem that can be pinned on the Harper government, it is that, after being elected on a promise to make Parliament more accountable and failing, it has actually moved in the opposite direction by using its majority to adopt omnibus budget bills that announce programs without revealing spending details. Budgets are now more impenetrable than ever.
The great frustration for all Canadians, who want their governments to be transparent and to manage their taxes responsibly, is that successive governments continue to ignore the well-known prescriptions for fixing the process. There is no federal party in Canada that can hold its head high when it comes to defending the crucial importance of Parliament’s power of the purse.