Parliament's budget watchdog probes crime bill cost

Parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page is going to try and determine the estimated cost of the Conservative government's omnibus crime bill.
Parliament's budget watchdog is digging into the cost of the government's omnibus crime bill. (Paul Daly/CP)

Parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page has started to look into the estimated price tag for the government's omnibus crime bill, he told CBC News on Tuesday.

Opposition MPs have long criticized the Conservatives over their crime agenda and have struggled to get cost estimates from the government for previous bills. Those criticisms have been renewed with the introduction of the blockbuster bill that combines nine pieces of legislation that the Tories failed to get through in minority parliaments. Critics say it's unfair to be asked to vote on legislation without knowing how much it will cost taxpayers.

New Democrat MP Jasbir Sandhu raised the issue in question period Tuesday and asked the government about the cost of the Safe Streets and Communities Act.

"When will the Conservatives come clean and release the real cost of this bill?" he asked.

Justice Minister Rob Nicholson didn't answer the question and instead said his department estimates that crime costs society $99 billion a year and 83 per cent of those costs are to victims.

"If he's worried about the cost, start standing up for victims," Nicholson responded.

At the request of a member of Parliament, Page's office began digging into the new bill on Monday and will see if it can come up with an estimate of what all the proposed changes will cost to implement over the next few years. From the numbers that have already been attached to previous bills by the government, Page thinks the Conservatives' crime agenda could cost upwards of $3 billion over five years, but he cautions he hasn't done his own analysis of the numbers yet.

The pressure is on for Page to do his investigation because the Conservatives want the bill passed within 100 sitting days of Parliament. On Tuesday, they moved to rush the debate on the Safe Streets and Communities Act so that it can get to the committee stage faster.

Page said he is aiming to have his analysis done within about 60 days. He also expressed concerns that the government didn't identify any expenditures related to the bill in its last budget in June. The budget is the government's fiscal planning document and it's troubling that it doesn't include references to such a major government initiative, he said.

"I think it's unprecedented, at least in my 30-year public service career, where you take a major political agenda item of the government where we know its going to cost billions of dollars and it doesn't show up in a budget document. I've never seen that before," he said.

"We don't see any adjustment in the government's budget for the tough-on-crime agenda," said Page. "There is no number. There is no line item anywhere in this document or in previous documents," he said, referring to the June budget.

"They have not explained to Parliament or Canadians what the tough-on-crime agenda means for its fiscal plan," said Page. The June budget lays out a cost-cutting plan that aims to erase the deficit by 2014-2015, and Page said it isn't clear how that target might be affected by the omnibus crime bill once it's passed.

The parliamentary budget officer has clashed before with the government over conflicting estimates and economic projections.

He said it's a fundamental problem of transparency that there is a lack of documentation for the government's crime agenda costs. "It is not right to not be able to go into a budget and read a section and look at the numbers to say, 'this is how the planning framework is being adjusted for the tough on crime agenda,'" he said. Page wonders if any costs for crime bills will be included in the government's fall economic statement, or in the Budget 2012.

"If we don't see it, we don't have confidence in the government's spending framework," he said.