Canadians will have to wait until the spring of 2013 to get a full accounting of what programs and services have been cut to balance the federal books.
That’s the timeline Treasury Board President Tony Clement reluctantly confirmed Wednesday during a conference call from Brazil, where he’s taking part in a conference on “open government.”
The minister told reporters he and the Conservative government share the frustration of those seeking clarity amid the conflicting spending cut claims that have been flying around since the March 29 budget.
New bits of information trickle out nearly every day. The Globe learned on Wednesday that the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the organization that represents 55,000 Inuit living in 53 communities across the North, has laid off nine staff because of a $1.5-million – or 40 per cent – cut in federal support.
The Correctional Service Canada is expected to announce a staffing shuffle Thursday, but no layoffs are expected. The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada union confirmed it received notices that more than 100 of its members will potentially be affected.
But these and many other notices to unions raise questions that continue to go unanswered as to what programs and services are being cut as Ottawa aims to hit its overall budget target of $5.2-billion in permanent savings and 19,200 fewer federal jobs.
“There’s no transparency to this,” said Gary Corbett, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada.
Mr. Clement said he is at the mercy of two processes – one for labour relations and the other for reporting spending to Parliament – that prevent ministers and departments from reporting details right away.
“We’re a bit handcuffed here,” he said in reference to the union rules that require potentially affected employees to be notified before any cuts are made public.
Mr. Clement says he’s also frustrated that reports to Parliament on spending come months after the budget.
“I’m hostage to this procedure. I want to be by the book in my reports to Parliament,” he said, adding that he agrees with the sentiment of MPs who have launched a study to reform the process.
“When we don’t hide behind a legal process, we’re accused of being in contempt [of Parliament] so I think we’ve got to stick to a process. That’s what our role is,” he said.
Liberal MP John McCallum said the minister’s claims of being handcuffed by Parliamentary rules are “crazy.” The MP said there’s no good reason why the government can’t outline its spending cuts now.
“I think he’s deliberately trying to avoid public scrutiny by making up excuses as to why he has to delay publication for eons.”
Internal Treasury Board documents previously obtained by The Globe and Mail showed officials were originally planning to release the details of 2012 budget cuts in annual documents called Report on Plans and Priorities, to be tabled in May. When The Globe reported in February that a new Treasury Board memo to departments ordered those details not be to be included in the May report, Mr. Clement distanced himself form that edict.
Yet he confirmed Wednesday there will be no reference to budget cuts in the May documents and Parliament and MPs will have to wait for next year’s reports to get the full breakdown of cuts. He added that some other reports to Parliament will provide some of the details in the interim.
Mr. Clement says his department’s original order to include the details in May was “a mistake.”
“There’s no way that we’d be ready for May,” he said. “The next round of RPP’s after May will obviously pertain to the budget and the estimates that have been filed since that time.”
And when is that next round?
“Spring of 2013 would be the next set of reports on plans and priorities,” he said. “There are going to be estimates that are going to be tabled before spring of 2013, so it’s not all to the spring of 2013.”
Since his appointment as Treasury Board President in May of 2011, Mr. Clement has delivered numerous speeches on the merits of open government. He has implemented changes that have seen more federal data and Access to Information reports proactively disclosed on departmental websites.
However Mr. Clement is also the minister who was put in charge of the government-wide effort announced in the budget that promised $5.2-billion in permanent annual savings. Since the March 29 budget, most departments have been very tight-lipped about how they will achieve reductions.
Public-sector unions have raised alarm about cuts to staff and programs in areas like food inspection, border security and support for veterans. The Conservative government has dismissed these warnings as “fear-mongering” and says union numbers are wrong, yet most departments are not providing detailed breakdowns of where the cuts are taking place.
Mr. Clement said he’s getting a positive reception in Brazil for his government’s approach to transparency.
“There’s a lot of interest at this conference at what Canada has done in the past and is doing right now and is committing to do in the future. We intend to be a model of open government,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that there will never be criticism. In fact, it may mean there will be more criticism. But the fact of the matter is that’s all part of the inherent dialogue that goes on with a democracy.”
With a report from Gloria GallowayReport Typo/Error