The federal Liberals are planning to move quickly with strict new rules on advertising and government websites to avoid any perception of partisanship.
In an interview with The Globe and Mail, the minister responsible for the file says the plan is for the government to put interim policies in place soon in order to provide guidance to the public service, while also asking Parliament to study the issue more closely ahead of legislative changes.
"We will be belt and suspenders on this," Treasury Board President Scott Brison said. "We recognize it's really important that we avoid even the impression of partisanship."
Mr. Brison is responsible for delivering on several important files for the government, including reforming the overall look of the federal government and reforming access to information laws so that disclosure by default is the overarching goal.
Treasury Board is also responsible for approving the detailed budgets of all other federal departments, meaning Mr. Brison is being asked to find billions in savings across government so that the Liberals can afford the billions in new spending in areas such as infrastructure that was promised during the federal election campaign.
In appointing Mr. Brison to Treasury Board, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau signalled a desire for tight control of general government spending even as Ottawa goes into deficit to fund billions in campaign promises.
First elected as a Progressive Conservative MP in 1997, Mr. Brison ran unsuccessfully for the PC leadership in 2003 before switching to the Liberals after the merger of the PCs and the Canadian Alliance into the Conservative Party of Canada. Mr. Brison was minister of public works under then-prime minister Paul Martin from July, 2004, until the February, 2006, election. He ran unsuccessfully for the Liberal leadership in 2006.
Throughout the course of a 45-minute interview in his corner office at Treasury Board's new headquarters on Ottawa's Elgin Street, Mr. Brison repeatedly promised to work more closely with parliamentary committees and to improve relations with public servants.
Mr. Brison will need to reach budget-friendly labour deals with the federal public service while also relying on government officials to help cabinet find ways of keeping costs in line.
"There are a lot of ideas from public servants about how we can do a better job on behalf of Canadians as a government providing better service and providing better value," he said.
The Liberals had promised that their spending pledges could be paid for while keeping annual deficits below $10-billion a year. However, the Prime Minister has recently said that may no longer be the case in light of slower-than-expected economic growth.
But the government is not yet backing away from any of those spending promises, meaning there will be pressure on Mr. Brison to find savings elsewhere. Mr. Brison noted that he has experience working on a cabinet committee in Mr. Martin's government that focused on finding internal savings.
"We're going to be extremely disciplined in government operations and in expenditures. We have to be disciplined," he said. "We have a slow-growth environment. We've had a slow-growth environment from 2010 forward. We have an ambitious and progressive agenda that's going to be focused on jobs and growth and fairness for the middle class. For us to do that, we have to be very disciplined fiscally."
Mr. Brison said the government's reforms to advertising and communications will be inspired by a private member's bill put forward in the past Parliament by Liberal MP David McGuinty, which called for advertising to be screened by the Auditor-General.
The government is also taking a cue from another private member's bill as it looks to reform Canada's Access to Information Act. Mr. Brison said Bill C-613 from the previous Parliament – which would grant the Access to Information Commissioner new powers to force departments to disclose documents, among other changes – will be a guide for him as he consults Parliament on changes. That bill was put forward by Mr. Trudeau.
"We will be expanding and deepening Access to Information, but the principle that guides is open by default," Mr. Brison said. "But to do that, engaging Parliament is something we intend on doing as part of this process in building the legislation."