OTTAWA — Canadians will be left in the dark about the effects of the upcoming federal budget cuts unless the Conservatives come clean about who will bear the brunt of their austerity budget, the parliamentary budget watchdog warns.
Kevin Page, the parliamentary budget officer, told The Huffington Post Canada this week that members of Parliament won’t be able to do their job unless the Tories are forthcoming about their budget cuts.
“They need to see the details, particularly in the context of an austerity budget. For the government to come out and say, we are going to achieve great things fiscally, we are going to bring you back to balance but I’m not going to show you any details, (that) doesn’t inspire confidence and doesn’t inspire trust,” Page said.
The Conservative government has suggested its budget won’t include many clear details on the upcoming cuts. If that is the case, MPs might be called to vote on the budget before knowing what its effects will be, what services will be cut, who they will affect and where they will take place.
“If you’re a budget watchdog, or more importantly a Member of Parliament, (without details) you’re not sure what you are holding them to account for,” Page said. “That raises the element of risk.”
“We don’t know where the ax is falling, we don’t know where the savings are going to be achieved,” he said.
The Tories were quite good at telling Canadians where and how they spent stimulus money, Page said. But the government hasn’t been quite as successful in noting where cost savings have come from, he said.
The NDP’s finance critic Peter Julian said the apparent lack of transparency suggests the Tories are attempting to hide the cuts they are making.
“Not exposing them in the budget and not even putting them forward and in the plans and priority documents that are coming out after the budget,” Julian said, suggests there are two messages: “One for Canadians that don’t worry, we are going to be responsible — despite their track record. And another internally, for Conservative partisans, where they are saying ‘Yeah, we are going to take on the federal government and slash services for families.’ ”
Last month, Liberal MP and government operations’ critic John McCallum tried to get a Commons committee to note its concern that the federal government was purposefully withholding information on upcoming cuts in documents known as departmental ‘plans and priorities.’ But the Liberals and NDP were overruled by Conservative MPs.
“Canadians should know what the government is doing, partly Canadians who might have services cut to them and partly those who might stand to lose their jobs,” McCallum told HuffPost.
Wednesday, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty told reporters there would be some “modest reductions” in the budget but most of the spending cuts would affect back office operations and not service delivery.
“We are focusing on the internal expenses of the government of Canada,” he said.
Earlier this month, Flaherty said there would be sufficient information provided in the budget for people to understand what the
government was doing and what the result of its ‘Deficit Reduction Action Plan’ would be.
“But then when you get down into the weeds, there are lots of initiatives that will be dealt with and that will be dealt with by the
Ministers and their departments going forward over time,” Flaherty said on March 5.
“This is normal,” he insisted.
McCallum, however, insisted that when he was leading an expenditure reduction review in 2004-2005, the Liberals were very forthcoming about their cuts, tabling them in a separate document with the budget.
Armed with that information parliamentary committees could undertake studies to find out the effects of the federal government’s decisions, McCallum said.
After winning their majority mandate on May 2nd, the Conservatives instructed all government departments, federal agencies and crown corporations to identify cost cutting scenarios for a five percent trim to their budget as well as a 10 per cent reduction.
Meeting behind closed doors, a small committee formed mostly of cabinet ministers then decided what to chop and how deep to go.
The talk was about austerity and finding between $4 billion and $8 billion in savings.
But in recent weeks, the Conservatives have tried to cast their budget as a visionary document about long-term sustainability and economic growth rather than an exercise in austerity.
“This is a jobs and growth budget,” Flaherty told reporters on February 29.
McCallum said he suspects the Tories will try to get everyone focused on the “millions” in spending rather than the “billions in cuts.”
“This is a government that prides itself on accountability and this is extraordinarily unaccountable behaviour,” he said.