The Harper government has dumped three box-loads of information about its efforts to stimulate Canada's sputtering economy on Parliament's independent budget watchdog.
Kevin Page had asked for more information, complaining that the sketchy data provided up to now made it impossible to tell whether $12-billion in stimulus spending is having any impact on the economy.
But rather than provide an easy-to-analyze spreadsheet listing infrastructure projects and how much money has been spent on each of them to date, the government flooded Page Thursday with 4,476 pages of documents.
A spokesman for Transport and Infrastructure Minister John Baird said the documents are in fact one big spreadsheet.
"The reason it is so large is because of the thousands of projects we have got out the door. That's good news," Chris Day said.
Nevertheless, it will likely take Mr. Page's office days, if not weeks, to input the information into an electronic database for analysis.
The tactic sparked opposition accusations that the government is trying to bury the parliamentary budget officer in paper.
"I think the PBO is being buried with data now and the goal is the same: To confound and confuse the general public," said New Democrat MP Pat Martin.
"They don't want to tell us how much they've really spent."
The box-loads of paper were unloaded just before Mr. Baird appeared at a Commons committee, where he was peppered with opposition demands for an accurate accounting of exactly how much money has been spent to date.
He made no apologies for not delivering the information in a more user-friendly form. He said 200 officials at Infrastructure Canada have been "working flat out" to get 7,600 projects up and running and that has to be their "first priority."
"The parliamentary budget officer has asked for a significant amount of information. We've given him a significant amount of information," Mr. Baird said.
Mr. Baird was repeatedly asked during the committee hearing to specify how much money has been spent thus far. He did not provide a figure.
Instead, he explained that the federal government has advanced up to 30 per cent of a project's cost upfront to some municipalities. But in general, he said the government only pays when its municipal and provincial partners submit invoices for work that's been done.
He said he didn't know how much has been advanced to municipalities. As for paying invoices, he later told reporters the government has paid "in the hundreds of millions" so far.
Liberal MP Martha Hall Findlay said the lack of precision is "extremely frustrating."
"We have not yet seen a single answer to [the question]what have you spent so far."
Mr. Baird stressed that all of the stimulus announcements are public and posted on a government website. They are also available on an interactive map.
But the announcements are not categorized or easily searchable, nor is it obvious if any of the various lists of projects are complete.
That means it has been next to impossible for any researcher to come to conclusions about how the stimulus money is being spent on a national basis, regardless of whether they want to know about political bias or economic impact.
The Liberal Party has employed two dozen volunteers to assemble its own database, culling information from an array of websites and making their own calls to municipalities to collect more data.
Mr. Page made an official request for more data in September. But in a sign that he wasn't holding much hope for government answers, he and his officials are working with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities to obtain details and research directly from municipal governments.
Mr. Page complained earlier this month that he did not have enough information to even begin to assess how the stimulus spending is affecting the economy and jobs. The information made available by the government has been incomplete, hard to assemble, and some programs have been dropped or renamed, making them difficult to track, he said.
Even with all the information he requested, Page will have a hard time figuring out the impact on job creation.
Unlike in the United States, the government did not set up a mechanism to track jobs created by the stimulus money. Instead it relies partly on a rule of thumb derived from research done for the Federation of Canadian Municipalities by economists at think-tank Informetrica Ltd.
Mr. Baird told the committee the federation has estimated 11,000 direct jobs are created for every $1-billion in stimulus spending.