Chris Hall: Kevin Page isn't buying the government's excuse for withholding a fiscal update
The U.K. and New Zealand did it, says Canada's first PBO — so why not Canada?
Canada's first parliamentary budget officer says the Liberal government has no good reason to withhold a fiscal update — not even the economic uncertainty generated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In an interview airing Saturday, Kevin Page told CBC's The House that the British government has been providing monthly spending updates since tabling a budget in March. And it's not the only government that has set out detailed financial plans since the pandemic struck.
"In New Zealand, we saw a budget in May," said Page, who now heads the Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy at the University of Ottawa.
"So you get a sense, with the additional fiscal supports, what that means for the bottom line and with the changing economic outlook. And we've seen other institutions, including the Bank of Canada, produce forecasts. So I think all the ingredients are there to put together a budget."
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau continues to resist calls for a detailed economic statement, arguing there are simply too many variables to make an accurate projection of how the economy will respond.
"There are so many things we simply don't know ... making projections about what our economy would look like in six months from now or a year from now is simply an exercise in invention and imagination," he told reporters this week at one of his daily briefings.
That uncertainty hasn't stopped the current parliamentary budget officer from publishing analyses of the government's spending, and from regularly updating the impact of that spending on those forecasts.
Lori Turnbull, director of Dalhousie University's School of Public Administration, told The House that the pandemic created an unprecedented economic situation that makes it difficult to predict with confidence how quickly businesses and different regions of the country will recover.
'The most poisonous pill of all'
"That said, we never have perfect predictions or indicators when it comes to the economy or a budget. So to pretend that we're able to see into a crystal ball in other years and we can't do it this year ... is not totally on," said Turnbull.
The political conflict over the government's reluctance to issue a fiscal update is beginning to strain the working relationship in Parliament. Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet this week demanded that Trudeau agree to table a fiscal update by the end of the month.
"The most poisonous pill of all of that is the government trying stubbornly to act as if there were not 338 people having been elected last October, and doing as if it was a majority government led by some kind of prince, which is not the case," Blanchet told reporters.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer continued his call this week for Parliament to return to its normal agenda after weeks of sitting as a special committee to deal with COVID-19.
"Parliament should be sitting right now so that we could be debating ideas and making sure that the government has a plan to restart our economy," he said. "But with the help of the NDP, Justin Trudeau shamefully shut down Parliament until at least the fall."
Turnbull argues the lack of a budget isn't the only thing wrong with how Parliament is operating now. She said the rules governing these special sittings limit the opposition's effectiveness.
A weakened opposition
She told The House that the arrangement strips them of their traditional tools — order paper questions, private member's bills and opposition day motions — for raising issues and challenging the government.
"And so we're seeing a really reduced opposition," she said. "I think it's fair to say the government knows that it can take advantage of one of the weakest oppositions we've seen in a long time."
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh disagrees. In a separate interview for this week's edition of The House, he argued his party has pushed the government to deliver more to Canadians who have lost income because of the pandemic.
"And I'm proud of the fact that on every element of the federal government's response to this pandemic, we've been able to improve it, whether it's CERB in the first place, broadening its application to students and to seniors, allowing for help to go to them," he said.
But that still leaves unanswered the question of costs — and whether the programs have worked the way they're supposed to.
Page said these concerns about parliamentary oversight will become more evident next week when MPs will have just a few hours to debate the supplementary estimates — which include another $6 billion in unapproved spending to deal with the impact of COVID-19.
"I think the clock is ticking," he said. "I think people are asking parliamentarians to vote on supplementary estimates next week and they have to vote without having an economic outlook to [base] these decisions on."
The government, meanwhile, is showing little indication that it will bend to calls for a more detailed accounting.
Also on this week's show:
- The CBC's Salimah Shivji delivers a special report on who gets hired within the federal civil service, and whether those decisions are representative of Canada's diverse population.
- Adam Lake, a Black activist at the start of his public policy career, and Gina Wilson, an Indigenous woman who is one of Canada's highest-ranking public servants, reflect on the urgent need for diversity in bureaucracy.
- Health law and policy expert Timothy Caulfield and infectious diseases specialist Dr. Allison McGeer talk about conflicting messaging on COVID-19 and why getting consensus across jurisdictions is such a challenge.