A new Liberal government plan to have Parliament approve $7-billion in budget spending through a single vote is coming under fire from Parliamentary Budget Officer Jean-Denis Fréchette.
Opposition MPs have already attacked the government’s plan as a $7-billion “slush fund,” and now, in a report released Tuesday, the PBO states that the new vote means “Parliament would now receive incomplete information and be able to exercise less control.”
The government says the new vote only authorizes the specific new spending plans that are outlined in the February budget, but Assistant Parliamentary Budget Officer Mostafa Askari said in an interview that the actual wording of the vote is “unclear” as to how the money will actually be spent.
“The wording of that vote in the main estimates is very broad and ambiguous,” he said. “It provides the government with flexibility to allocate those funds to any budget initiative that was mentioned in the budget … This does not really restrict the government to what they said they would do.”
The issue relates to the Liberal government’s effort to address a long-standing criticism of the way Parliament approves government spending. MPs vote throughout the year on what are called the estimates, which authorize departments to spend money. All parties have agreed that a major problem with the system is that the main estimates – the first and largest funding request of the year – are typically tabled before the budget and so are not a useful guide of how departments actually plan to spend money during the year.
In previous years, budget spending announcements would have been subjected to an internal review by Treasury Board officials and a cabinet committee and then presented for parliamentary approval later in the year through what are called supplementary estimates.
To address calls for more timely information, the Liberals released the 2018 budget nearly a month earlier than last year and included a detailed table in the budget outlining how the new spending would be presented in the main estimates. When the main estimates came out, that $7-billion was presented as a single vote for Parliament to approve.
Treasury Board President Scott Brison has argued that the approach represents an unprecedented level of transparency that will be followed up with monthly reporting on how that $7-billion is spent.
Tuesday’s PBO report notes several concerns with this approach. Specifically, it points out that Parliament is now being asked to approve spending before it has been subjected to that internal review by the Treasury Board. Also, the money is not included in the individual spending plans presented by departments, making it harder for MPs to scrutinize departmental spending.
Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre said the PBO report supports the concerns he’s been raising about the new vote.
“This spending bill amounts to a $7-billion slush fund in an election year,” he said.
NDP MP Daniel Blaikie called Tuesday for a special House of Commons debate on the issue in light of the PBO’s report. He said in an interview that the large vote is “absurd” and is like asking MPs to approve a $7-billion “petty cash” account with no Parliamentary oversight.
“Nobody operates that way and the federal government shouldn’t be operating that way,” he said.
Mr. Brison told MPs Tuesday that he has spoken with the PBO about the report and defended his government’s approach.“This is the first time ever that when MPs are voting on the main estimates they will know initiative by initiative where the budget money is going. This is a huge step forward in terms of parliamentary oversight,” he said.
A senior Treasury Board official told the Globe and Mail that the vote is an interim measure as the government works to improve the estimates process. The official said the ultimate goal is to have Treasury Board work with the Finance Department during the budget-making process so that the main estimates can include department by department budget items that have already received Treasury Board approval.
The official noted that the main estimates make reference to the new spending in the budget and that departments are not allowed to spend more than those amounts.