The Conservative government is promising a detailed fall accounting of its stimulus spending just hours after Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page warned that the apparent loss of the large regular reports was limiting debate over the nation's finances.
Since the government launched its deficit-financed stimulus spending in January of 2009, five large progress reports have been released - roughly every quarter. But the last one in that form was in March, meaning the government has already diverted from last year's schedule.
That, combined with the fact that Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's office would not confirm whether any future reports of that same scope were planned, prompted concern from Mr. Page and opposition MPs.
"It's a huge loss, a significant loss from a fiscal transparency standpoint," said Mr. Page, who praised the thoroughness of the reports as they were released throughout the last fiscal year. "It really put Canada almost at the forefront in fiscal transparency and stimulus. … It's unfortunate that we just sort of let it drop."
Late Tuesday after globeandmail.com published Mr. Page's concerns, the Prime Minister's Office insisted it had not scrapped its reporting on what it calls Canada's Economic Action Plan and a large report will be released in the fall.
A spokesman for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Michael White, said Tuesday night that "this fall, there will be another quarterly report."
The reporting scheme was born at the height of the midwinter 2009 political drama over opposition threats to topple the Conservatives and form a coalition government led by Michael Ignatieff. The Liberal Leader demanded a year of detailed stimulus reports as the price for his party abandoning a much-discussed deal with the NDP and allowing the Conservative government to survive.
The government quickly embraced Mr. Ignatieff's offer, saying it had always planned to report its progress to Parliament. But after the Liberals failed to include a similar requirement in allowing the 2010 budget to pass, the second and final year of stimulus cash is going out the door without the same level of reporting.
"That kind of let them off the hook," acknowledged Liberal finance critic John McCallum, who says the issue should be revisited when Parliament resumes.
"The nature of this government is that they won't provide the information unless they're absolutely forced to," he said. Although Mr. McCallum criticized the government for turning the release of the reports into a "propaganda" exercise, he said some information was better than none.
The government ultimately released five reports to Parliament ending in March, 2010, numbering between 135 and 234 pages each. In June, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty released a 34-page "report to Canadians" on the country's broad economic performance, but that report did not detail stimulus spending.
"The quarterly reports to Canadians helped inform taxpayers about the progress made in implementing the Economic Action Plan," said Mr. Flaherty's spokesman, Chisholm Pothier, in an e-mail. He wrote that there will be further reporting, but did not indicate what form that will take.
While approved projects can be found on government websites, NDP finance critic Thomas Mulcair said the lack of reporting means the public doesn't know if the projects will finish in time to meet the government's "use it or lose it" deadline of March 31, 2011.
"If the news on getting the spending out was good, they would be the first ones to be telling us about it," he said. "Which leads me to believe that on this front and several others, things are not quite as rosy as they would have us believe."
Brock Carlton, chief executive officer of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, said the stimulus projects are going well, though some are behind schedule - particularly in Saskatchewan due to recent floods. He said the quarterly reports were useful, but that it is up to Parliament to decide whether they should continue.
Mr. Page, whose budget office will issue a report next week on the risk that projects might miss the deadline, said the practical impact is that Canada is not having the same level of debate over deficit spending as is taking place in the United States.
"We have this big stimulus package, $20-billion at the federal level, and we're not talking about it," he said. "There's a lot at stake for parliamentarians and Canadians when we're putting this money out the door."