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Globe and Mail reporter Bill CurryThe Globe and Mail

The federal government is acting on a campaign pledge to speed up the amount of time it takes for the spending details of budget announcements to be made public.

The move is aimed at addressing a long-standing complaint that Members of Parliament often have to wait months before high-level budget promises are explained in detail, making it hard for Parliament to perform its role as a watchdog of government spending.

As it stands, Treasury Board officials responsible for submitting spending requests to Parliament are largely in the dark during the budget making process. That creates major delays in the time it takes to provide details on budget decisions.

Now Treasury Board officials are working behind the scenes with Finance Canada to find ways of working together while a budget is being written so that the details can be released shortly after the budget, as is common practice for other governments.

The reforms would not be in place in time for this year's budget.

"It's a priority for us," said Treasury Board President Scott Brison. "It's anachronistic to think that as a government that we have the right to keep from Canadians information that ultimately belongs to them. It's also basically impossible to do, and it makes no sense for governments to try to delay the inevitable."

Canada's Parliamentary system is based on archaic rules dating back to the Magna Carta, signed by King John of England in 1215, who would summon a common council of the realm to approve spending and taxes in support of the Crown. In theory, House of Commons committees are supposed to review and approve the detailed spending plans of federal departments. While this does sometimes happen, critics say these spending requests often receive a rubber stamp from MPs in part because committees are short on time and the format of the requests from departments are difficult to understand.

For instance, the spending requests – which are officially called the estimates – are presented in a different accounting basis than the budget. The budget uses accrual accounting to show when an expense was incurred, while the spending estimates use cash accounting that shows when money is received or paid out. This makes it extremely difficult to compare the spending promises in the budget to the actual spending plans of departments.

Auditor General Michael Ferguson has criticized this practice and called for a single accounting format, but Treasury Board has resisted. Treasury Board is working on a compromise in which tables would explain how the two sets of numbers can be reconciled.

Previous efforts to improve the role of MPs in monitoring spending include the creation in 2002 of a Commons committee on government operations and the estimates and the launch in 2006 of the Parliamentary Budget Officer.

NDP MP Erin Weir, a former labour economist who is vice-chair of the government operations committee, says further improvements are clearly needed.

"We want government revenues and spending to be as transparent as possible, so anything that helps Parliamentarians and citizens follow the money is good for democracy and public policy," he said. "Often things are presented in the budget and then it's very hard to tell whether or not the government is following through on them…It is a complex and at times byzantine process, so I think there is room for improvement."

Conservative MP and government operations committee chair Tom Lukiwski said the committee plans on holding hearings about the reform plans.

Mr. Lukiwski said he'd like to see MPs play a stronger and more vigorous role in reviewing spending.

"I suspect that in many cases over the years, some committees have almost taken a cursory look, a perfunctory look, at estimates and not really gone into the detail that Parliamentarians perhaps should," he said. "And I think that's the biggest flaw that we've had over the years."