The NDP opposition is upset that the Harper government spent $8-billion less than it promised in its 2011 budget, a budget on which the Conservatives campaigned. They are attempting to sell Ottawa’s frugality as a lack of transparency, but in this case it’s far more sensible to see it as a wise use of taxpayers’ money at a time when governments need to reduce their deficits. Call it leading by example.
According to the Public Accounts, the billions in savings are easily explained and just as easily justified. Almost $2-billion came as a result of lower-than-expected Employment Insurance claims; another $1.4-billion is explained by a change stemming from British Columbia’s decision not to adopt the Harmonized Sales Tax. But the bulk of the savings – around $5-billion – are the result of Ottawa’s decision not to squander every single penny it had originally budgeted as stimulus spending designed to aid in the country’s economic recovery.
There are far too few politicians in Canada, or in the world for that matter, who can resist the temptation to spend a dollar once it has been made available to them in a budget. The Harper government could have easily lavished those approved monies on headline-grabbing infrastructure programs, even if the country’s stabilized economy dictated otherwise. Instead, the government ended up reducing its 2011-12 deficit by $6-billion through the rather extraordinary measure of not wasting your money on unneeded projects.
There is no question that the Harper government has transparency issues. Its recent omnibus budget bills are a sham that make proper Parliamentary oversight next-to-impossible. And the government has done nothing to improve Ottawa’s arcane budget process, despite repeatedly promising more accountability. Overall, budget transparency should be a government priority. But when it comes to promising to spend billions during an election campaign and then quietly not spending it once you are in power because there is no longer a valid justification for it, most Canadians, aside from the NDP, are okay with that.