Parliament is at risk of "losing control" of its responsibility as gatekeeper of public spending because MPs are in the dark when they rubber stamp government plans, the Parliamentary Budget Officer warns.
In an appearance before the House of Commons finance committee Tuesday, Kevin Page expressed concern that Parliament is approving justice and crime bills without knowing their full cost implications. He also noted that MPs recently voted in favour of cuts in some departments without understanding the implications of their decision.
"There is genuine concern that Parliament is losing control of its fiduciary responsibilities of approving financial authorities of public monies as afforded in the Constitution," Mr. Page said, according to a copy of his prepared remarks.
The House of Commons and its committees have two main responsibilities. One is to review legislation and make amendments as required. However the second - and less understood - role of Parliament is to review the spending plans of government departments and approve them through votes.
Committees have the power to reduce a department's budget if they are not satisfied with the plan provided, but that rarely happens.
The Conservative government is expected to speak in the House of Commons this week on a motion from Liberal finance critic Scott Brison, who is asking the Speaker to find the government in contempt of Parliament for refusing to provide the cost of its crime bills and for refusing to disclose information related to corporate profits.
MPs on another committee, government operations, have also expressed frustration at their inability to get information on how the government is meeting its targets to cut spending in departments.
In his remarks, Mr. Page challenged the government's claims that all of this information is subject to cabinet confidence. He noted that the government provided details on spending cuts in 2006 without claiming concern about confidentiality.
Now that the government's focus is shifting from stimulus spending to restraint, he said the government should be providing regular reports on the details of that restraint in the same way it provided Parliament with updates on the stimulus spending during the recession.
Mr. Page said the PBO's updated fiscal projections continue to show a deficit in 2016, contrary to the government's promise to balance the books by then. He warned MPs, however, that the main concern facing Canada's finances is long term because of the rising costs associated with retiring baby boomers.
Mr. Page said the current "political climate" leads MPs to ignore these issues.
"Parliamentarians may wish to consider reforming the budget process to ensure a more forward looking assessment and management of the nation's finances," he said. "In my opinion, the current process and political climate give too little weight to the fiscal impacts of current policies on future generations."