Canada's national security agencies failed to spend hundreds of millions of dollars from their approved budgets last year even as some push for more cash in the wake of last month's attack on Parliament Hill, according to a review by The Globe of recently released Public Accounts figures.
The day after a man stormed Parliament Hill with a rifle on Oct. 22, RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson spoke publicly about how national security efforts are a "drain on resources" that require the force to pull officers away from financial and organized-crime work.
"Let me put it this way: We're doing what we can with what we've got," Commissioner Paulson later told senators during an Oct. 27 committee appearance. "Frankly speaking, one of the challenges in managing and leading a police organization is that you never have enough money – you never do. I will never have enough money."
However, the latest year-end figures published last week in the Public Accounts shows the RCMP underspent its approved budget by $158.7-million. While Parliament approved a 2013-14 budget of $3.1-billion for the RCMP, only $2.9-billion was spent.
For years, the Conservatives have embraced restraint – ordering departments to look for savings as the government pushes to erase the deficit. Some critics say it has had a chilling effect and has led to departments underspending.
The Parliamentary Budget Officer has gone further, expressing concern that year-end results show the government is cutting more deeply than announced without a clear explanation of the consequences.
The Public Accounts show other security agencies also underspent their approved budgets. The Canada Border Services Agency spent $194.2-million less than its approved budget of $2.2-billion; the Canadian Security Intelligence Service came in at $18.2-million below its approved budget of $534.8-million and the Communications Security Establishment spent $25.1-million less than its approved budget of $468.8-million. The percentages of money going unspent by departments are higher if automatic spending, such as pension contributions, are removed from the calculation.
The Globe asked all four bodies for explanations on Monday, but no answers were provided by CBSA in time for Tuesday's deadline. A spokesperson for CSE said the lower spending was partly because several small projects were delayed.
RCMP Sergeant Greg Cox noted Parliament approves spending in three categories – capital, operations and grants and contributions – and these budgets are not interchangeable. He said the RCMP underspent its budget in part because some capital projects were delayed or deferred.
A CSIS spokesperson said its unspent funds were within the amount that can be carried forward into the next year.
The practice of allowing approved spending to go unspent – or "lapse" as it is called in government documents – has raised concern in recent years because of the large amounts involved. Government-wide, departments lapsed $7.3-billion in 2013-14 and $10.1-billion the previous year.
Treasury Board rules do allow departments to carry forward a limited amount of lapsed funding into the following year. But any money over that amount gets forfeited to Ottawa's bottom line.
The practice is a big reason the government has been able to announce that it beat previous forecasts for reducing the deficit. But while the large amount of savings is trumpeted as evidence of good management by the government, the widespread practice has raised transparency concerns from the budget officer.
"This is creating all kinds of issues, because if it's a hidden spending cut, then it's not a transparent way of reducing government operations," said assistant parliamentary budget officer Mostafa Askari. The PBO argues that some lapse should be expected, given that departments are not allowed to overspend their approved budgets. However, the PBO has called for better explanations as to why more than 8 per cent of approved spending is not being used.
University of Ottawa professor and national security expert Wesley Wark said it is "strange" to see money going unspent at Canada's security agencies. Prof. Wark said last month's attack on Parliament Hill requires a debate about proper funding levels for these organizations, but that can be a challenge given the level of secrecy required.
"We just need to have a better picture of how the money is spent," he said. Based on his research, Mr. Wark said arguments could be made to give more money to the RCMP, CSIS and the CBSA but the CSE has received significant increases in recent years and is likely well-funded.
At an Oct. 20 Senate committee hearing two days before the attack, CSIS director of operations Jeff Yaworski suggested the service could use more money.
"I would be foolhardy to say we have all the bases covered," he told senators. "We do what we can with the budget we have."
NDP MP Randall Garrison said it appears departments – including security agencies – are under political pressure to underspend.
"It is a serious concern," he said. "You've already reduced their budget and now you put pressure on them to not even spend what's allocated. Then Parliament has a tough time knowing if proper resources are assigned to national security."