The Liberal government is asking Parliament to approve billions in new spending during a brief four-week sitting in Ottawa, but is facing questions because it has not released a full accounting of how it spent more than $600-billion last year during the peak of Canada’s pandemic response.
More than eight months after the end of the 2020-21 fiscal year, the Liberal government has yet to table the “public accounts” and related documents, which provide a detailed breakdown of how federal funds were spent and include the final official deficit number for the year.
Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland’s April budget estimated the budget deficit for 2020-21 would be $354.2-billion – up from $39.4-billon the previous year. For context, the projected deficit was nearly the same size as the $362.9-billion in total federal spending the previous year. The budget had said total spending for 2020-21 would be $634.9-billion.
The budget said the deficit for the current fiscal year would be $154.7-billion.
Ms. Freeland recently said she will release a fiscal update this fall. Budgets and fiscal updates are forward-looking documents that provide forecasts for future spending and revenues. The public accounts are the hard numbers that show what was actually spent during a full fiscal year.
Former parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page, who is now president and chief executive officer of the Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy at the University of Ottawa, said he doesn’t see a reason why the government appears to be waiting to release key information, such as the public accounts and a fall fiscal update.
“They should be at the front end [of the current four-week sitting],” he said in an interview, adding that committees should also be sitting to review spending requests. “That is the standard practice and a good practice and I’m not really sure there’s any reason not to have that. I’m sure that the work is done on the public accounts and there’s no reason not to table it. Finance [Canada] has had plenty of time.”
Mr. Page said knowing how money was spent last year can help inform debate over the government’s request for more funds. “It’s all information that can be used to shape the debate and hold the government to account,” he said.
Adrienne Vaupshas, a spokesperson for Ms. Freeland, said the public accounts are normally tabled during the fall sitting of Parliament and that will occur again this year.
“The public accounts will be presented in the coming weeks,” she said in an e-mailed statement Wednesday. “We are firmly committed to being prudent and transparent about the government’s finances.”
The government is seeking parliamentary approval for $8.7-billion in additional spending in the current fiscal year through a process called the supplementary estimates. With the support of the NDP, it also passed a motion last week that replaced the normal practice of having such spending requests reviewed through hearings by relevant standing committees, which are not yet up and running.
Instead, the new spending will be reviewed by the “committee of the whole,” a practice in which all MPs on the floor of the House of Commons act as a temporary committee. Unlike the normal practice of standing committees, this does not involve calling policy experts or departmental officials to discuss the proposed spending.
Over the past 10 years, the public accounts have been tabled six times in October, twice in November and twice in December.
Conservative Senator Elizabeth Marshall, a former Newfoundland and Labrador auditor-general, said the lack of accounting is unacceptable.
“They’re quick to table the bill asking for more money and saying that’s got to be approved by Parliament before Christmas, but they’re not so quick in providing the accountability documents,” she said in an interview Wednesday. “For us to get up in the Senate chamber and vote for a bill to give the government more money when they haven’t provided the basic financial information, it’s just shameful.”
Ms. Marshall said she expects the government is waiting until near the end of the four-week sitting period to release the public accounts so that MPs and senators are left with a limited window of time to ask questions. The House is scheduled to recess for the holidays on Dec. 17 and will not return until Jan. 31.
The senator said that while a budget gets plenty of attention, the public accounts should be scrutinized more closely because they show where the money actually went.
“It was a big spending year and the debt went up significantly, and I’d like to see those numbers,” she said. “Everybody focuses on the budget and I could never understand that, even when I was the auditor-general in Newfoundland. ... You could put whatever you want in the budget and the estimates. It’s the actual numbers that I’m focusing on.”
The senator raised the issue this week in the Senate and asked when the public accounts will be released, but a government representative in the Senate, Marc Gold, responded that he had no information to share.
“I don’t have the answer. I will make inquiries and report back,” he said.
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