Federal budget watchdog to issue quarterly reports
Slams Tories for failing to inform MPs on effects of cutbacks
Saying he is fed up with the lack of transparency, Canada's budget watchdog intends to publish his own analysis of the impact of government cutbacks on programs and the bureaucracy.
Parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page said Wednesday he will release quarterly reports starting later this month on the effects of $37 billion in federal cutbacks announced in the past three budgets.
Because the government has not been forthcoming in releasing information, Page said, his office will use non-public data collected by the receiver general and data shared by federal organizations to report to parliamentarians on how the spending restraint program is affecting the system and Canadians.
Page said he plans to examine actual spending tied to specific program activity in order to zero in on where the cuts are hitting.
Page conceded that the government does regularly table financial reports with Parliament, but said they are often issued several months after MPs are asked to vote on the issue and the level of disclosure is skimpy, with few specific details.
"In combination, these shortcomings could result in a full fiscal year being completed before the anticipated impacts of all planned spending cuts are presented to parliamentarians," the report states.
Repeated clashes with Harper government
Page was not available to comment Wednesday, but he has repeatedly clashed with the Harper government over being denied information he says he needs to do his job. He has also drawn criticism from ministers when he has taken issue with the government's costing of programs, such as the F-35 fighter jet purchase.
In February, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty called Page "unbelievable, unreliable, incredible" after he pronounced Canada's old age security program in Canada sustainable, directly disagreeing with the government's assessment.
The PBO's latest initiative was welcomed by NDP finance critic Peggy Nash, who said she shares many of Page's frustrations with government secrecy.
"I think what the parliamentary budget officer is trying to do with these independent reports is to help Canadians and help us as MPs understand better how our tax dollars are being handled, and how these cuts are going to impact Canadians," she said.
Nash cited the controversy over the omnibus budget implementation bill passed in June, which opposition parties had opposed in part because there was insufficient information about its possible effects.
"We still to this day don't fully know the extent of the cuts and what services will be affected and how it will effect the daily lives of Canadians."
It's ironic, Nash added, that it was the Harper government that established the PBO to increase government transparency and accountability, then starved the office of information.
In Wednesday's paper, the PBO said the reductions announced in direct program expenditures over the past three budgets were similar in scope to the deep cuts ushered in by the Liberals in the 1990s, but there is very little disclosure on their impact.
When the spending restraint programs run their course, federal direct program expenditures will have been sliced to 5.5 per cent of gross domestic product, a 50-year low, the paper estimates.
In the 2012 budget, Flaherty said the latest restraint effort would result in the loss of 19,200 jobs over three years, but that services to Canadians would not suffer.
Cuts implemented as user fees rise
Page has long been skeptical that such deep savings can be realized without affecting services and programs.
In his paper, he cites actual spending at Environment Canada last year, which shows outlays on internal services were 26 per cent higher than projected, but that spending on sustainable ecosystems was 50 per cent lower.
"It is expected that tracking the financial variances by (program activity) will allow parliamentarians to identify which activities are being cut and/or eliminated, and therefore provide a starting point for dialogue … on the consequential service impacts and risks."
In another report issued Wednesday, the office said Ottawa is increasingly realizing greater revenue through increases in the user fees it charges Canadians for goods and services.
In the 2010-11 fiscal year, Ottawa raked in just over $8 billion in user fees, compared with just $3.4 billion a decade earlier. User fees are rising at the provincial and municipal levels as well as governments seek new revenue streams.