Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre is dismissing a Liberal effort to find more than $15-billion in cuts to existing federal spending plans, saying Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government has a clear record of mismanaging money.
Speaking at a news conference in Toronto on Tuesday, Mr. Poilievre was asked by reporters to comment on a Globe and Mail report that new Treasury Board President Anita Anand has given her cabinet colleagues an Oct. 2 deadline to identify specific spending cuts.
Ms. Anand’s deadline was presented in a letter to ministers days before the recently shuffled cabinet is set to meet for a retreat in Charlottetown. That gathering is scheduled to take place next week. Ministers are being asked to provide specific options for meeting a 2023 budget target of finding $15.4-billion in reductions from current spending plans over five years. The savings have already been booked in the government’s budget numbers, including $500-million for the current fiscal year.
Mr. Poilievre said in French that he doesn’t believe Mr. Trudeau will follow through on the planned savings.
“He will never respect his spending commitments. He had promised the deficit would never exceed $10-billion and now he’s added more than $500-billion to our national debt. We can’t trust Justin Trudeau when it comes to our money,” he said.
Mr. Poilievre listed the substantial growth in spending on federal outsourcing with companies such as McKinsey & Co., as well as the $54-million cost of the ArriveCan app, as examples of what he said is wasteful spending.
At a separate news conference, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh also pointed to outsourcing contracts as an area where the federal government could find savings. But Mr. Singh, who is part of a confidence and supply agreement in which the NDP supports the minority Liberal government in exchange for action on key issues, questioned the direction of the spending review, saying he was concerned it could affect health care and social services.
Ms. Anand’s letter said the review “will not impact direct benefits and service delivery to Canadians, direct transfers to other orders of government and Indigenous communities, or to the Canadian Armed Forces.”
The spending review was originally announced in the March 28 federal budget, which identified a goal of saving $7.1-billion over five years through a 15-per-cent cut to discretionary spending on consulting, professional services and travel over five years. It also announced a planned phase-in of a 3-per-cent cut to eligible planned spending by departments and agencies by 2026-27, with a goal of saving $7-billion over four years. Crown corporations are also expected to find a combined $1.3-billion in savings over four years.
It has been nearly a decade since the last formal round of federal spending reviews, which took place under Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper. The Conservatives oversaw two rounds of strategic reviews, which took place between 2007 and 2010 and then from 2011 to 2015.
Prior to that, the Liberal government led by prime minister Jean Chrétien oversaw a program review in the mid-1990s that produced deep spending cuts. Those eliminated the deficit, but also generated controversy through sharp reductions in areas such as defence spending.
The 1995 Liberal budget announced a 14-per-cent reduction in the size of the public service.
In contrast to those two efforts, the current review by the Trudeau government is much less aggressive. It is focused on curbing the rate of growth in spending as opposed to generating year-over-year spending reductions. Any staffing cuts would occur through attrition rather than layoffs, Ms. Anand’s office told The Globe.
University of Victoria professor Evert Lindquist, who recently co-authored a research paper comparing the current spending review to past efforts, said the Trudeau government’s targets are achievable.
He added that the Prime Minister’s decision to shuffle Ms. Anand from the defence portfolio to the Treasury Board late last month, which some observers viewed as a demotion, suggests the Liberals see a political need to prioritize financial management in the lead-up to the next election.
“The government is looking to the future, looking to the next election, and seeing that it would make good politics – but also good fiscal management – to start reviewing programs with their priorities in mind,” he said, disagreeing with those who saw Ms. Anand’s new job as a step down.
Other outside assessments of the Trudeau government’s review have been less charitable.
Queen’s University adjunct professor Don Drummond, a former senior federal finance official who worked on the mid-1990s review and also led a spending review for the Ontario Liberal government that produced recommendations in 2012, has dismissed the current federal exercise as “bogus.”
In an April paper he wrote for the C.D. Howe Institute, he said the review lacks credibility because it targets cuts to planned spending, as opposed to actual spending.
“It may well be an accounting sleight of hand,” he said in an interview on Tuesday. “I don’t think that they’ll get any real bucks if they’re just asking people to make voluntary contributions.”
Mr. Poilievre said Tuesday that if he becomes prime minister, his government would require that any new government spending be offset by an equivalent cut elsewhere.