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Next federal budget will have no guidance from Parliament Add to ...

Next year's pivotal federal budget that could trigger an election will be put together without the legally required input from Parliament.

The Commons finance committee has decided to shelve its prebudget report after a draft was leaked to lobbyists by a low-level Parliament Hill staffer.

"It's unfortunate," said Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, who will be making key decisions on the contents of the 2011 budget without the report from MPs on the finance committee. Mr. Flaherty said, however, that he has met with the Liberal and NDP finance critics to discuss the budget and has written to all MPs asking for their advice.

December and January are key months in which decisions are made on the next federal budget. The committee's failure to produce a report means Mr. Flaherty and his officials will not have the guidance of compromises hashed out by the parties in the minority Parliament.

That gives the Finance Minister extra latitude, but also robs him of the opportunity to pin down the opposition on budget day by having opposition MPs on the record as to the measures they support.

The politics and positioning leading up to the budget are no small matter given the possibility that the ensuring vote could be the trigger for the next federal election.

The cause of the unprecedented disruption of the finance committee's prebudget work - which involves months of extensive hearings followed by behind-the-scenes compromising - is now the subject of an investigation by the Commons procedure committee.

That probe was launched after Conservative MP Kelly Block apologized for the leak and said she has fired her assistant - Russell Ullyatt - who forwarded the draft documents to several lobbyists minutes after they arrived in his inbox.

Members of the finance committee were reluctant to discuss the situation Monday because all discussions over the leak and the status of the report took place in camera. Liberal MP Massimo Pacetti, the committee vice-chair, said a decision was taken not to release the report.

Leaked committee reports are nothing new on Parliament Hill. But what so incensed opposition MPs in this case is the fact that it was not the final report but a draft report outlining where each party stood on various polices. That left some MPs feeling the opportunity for compromise on a final report had been lost.

Further, MPs began receiving phone calls from lobbyists expressing surprise that they had failed to convince the MP of their various budget requests. The Speaker agreed with a complaint from finance committee member Thomas Mulcair - the NDP's finance critic - ruling that the leak infringed the MPs' ability to do their work.

Donald Savoie, who holds a Canada Research Chair in Public Administration and Governance at the University of Moncton, said he doesn't understand why the committee report must be shelved while hearings continue into the leak.

The committee's prebudget work has a long and largely respected history and in 1994 the committee was given the specific duty in the rules of Parliament to "review proposals relating to the government's budgetary policy."

"I don't think it's acceptable and I don't think it serves either the committee or Parliament well," Prof. Savoie said.

Having warned for years about the demise of MP power at the hands of the executive, Prof. Savoie says the Commons finance committee has been a rare exception. For decades it has contributed to the public debate on the budget - which is often the most important announcement a government makes in a year - and MPs of all stripes clamour to become members.

"We will never know if the government really listened to the committee of Parliament and I think it gives a free hand to the government in the spring when it tables its budget," he said.

Mr. Mulcair said he has his doubts the leak was merely a low-level staffer acting alone and intends to question Mr. Ullyatt and the lobbyists involved Tuesday when they appear before the procedure committee.

"The very fact that we haven't been able to meet that deadline is a reflection of the very fact that this is a serious matter," he said, arguing the leak has ruined a rare avenue for civility in Parliament.

Follow on Twitter: @curryb

 

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