OTTAWA - The Harper government has rejected key reforms demanded by a House of Commons committee to eliminate the arcane rules that prevent MPs from properly scrutinizing billions of dollars in spending each year.
In a June report, the all-party committee complained that outdated rules of Parliament are keeping them in the dark about expenditures — obstructing MPs from fulfilling one of their most basic responsibilities.
Among other recommendations, the non-partisan report called on government to issue the federal budget no later than Feb. 1 each year so that other official spending documents that follow can reflect budget decisions.
Currently, detailed expenditure plans placed before parliamentary committees each spring reflect the previous year's budget, not the current one, hobbling the ability of MPs to properly assess them.
But Tony Clement, the Treasury Board president, has rejected that recommendation.
"The government does not support a fixed date for tabling of the budget," Clement wrote this week to New Democrat MP Pat Martin, the committee chair.
"A requirement to present its budget in the House of Commons no later than February 1 of each year would restrict the government's flexibility in responding to global and domestic imperatives."
Clement's rejection came the same day the government tabled a giant omnibus budget bill with detailed initiatives that were either absent from its March 29 budget or only vaguely described.
The committee had also asked that each department's annual spending plans, tabled in the House each spring, include details on the value of tax breaks provided to corporations and individuals.
Currently, the Finance Department produces an annual report on these so-called tax expenditures but the information is difficult to link back to departmental programs.
Clement rejected that proposal as well, saying it would make other ministers responsible for tax breaks that are solely the purview of the finance minister.
"This would not be appropriate as it would not be consistent with the principle of ministerial accountability," Clement wrote.
Committee members also wanted a study on whether the parliamentary budget officer — currently Kevin Page, who regularly bumps heads with the Harper government — should be given independent powers as an officer of Parliament rather than working under the Library of Parliament.
Clement noted that the issue had already been studied by Parliament and that the job was considered a "natural extension" of the library's work.
Most of the committee's 16 recommendations fall to the House of Commons for decisions. John McCallum, vice-chair of the government operations and estimates committee, is asking the House for a debate on the proposals.
"I think that's when the government's true colours will emerge," he said in an interview.
Another recommendation would require committees to spend at least two weeks studying departmental spending plans. Under current rules, committees can be deemed to have scrutinized and approved such plans without actually having examined them.
Clement partly acceded to another demand for more information about program spending, saying Treasury Board would deliver a report by March 31 next year on how it proposed to do so.
McCallum called Clement's responses "weak," noting that all Conservatives on the committee agreed to the recommendations.
He said members heard evidence that other countries have made their spending reviews more transparent, and that Canada has no excuse not to do likewise.
The NDP's public works critic called Clement's response "appalling."
"Following months conferring with experts on parliamentary processes, the all-party standing committee on government operations and estimates reached consensus on meaningful reforms to enable parliamentarians to properly scrutinize government spending, and the PMO (Prime Minister's Office) simply said 'no'," MP Linda Duncan said in a release.
"By roundly rejecting many of the most critical recommended reforms, the government sent a clear signal it has abandoned its promise of open and transparent government."
Related on HuffPost:
The Conservative government has introduced Bill C-45, the second omnibus budget implementation bill. Here's a brief look at what's inside the 450-page document. <em>With files from CBC</em>
MP And Public Service Pensions
<strong>UPDATE</strong>: <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/10/19/mp-pension-changes-passed-bill-c-45_n_1987522.html">MP Pensions have been hived off from the omnibus bill and passed without further debate in a surprise deal between the government and opposition parties</a>. Starting as early as January 2013, public servants and MPs will have to contribute 50 per cent of the payments into their pensions. MPs will also have to wait until age 65 to start collecting their pensions, or be penalized if they start at age 55. The precise date for MP pension changes is Jan. 1, 2016. There will be no change to the current eligibility for MP pensions of six years of service.
The Canada Employment Insurance Financing Board will be dissolved, and an interim means of establishing premium rates set up to replace its work. The Crown Corporation is currently run by a seven-member board. This move continues employment insurance changes started with the first omnibus budget bill, as cabinet gradually receives more authority to reform EI.
Changes To The Indian Act
The bill makes what could be controversial changes to the Indian Act, amending it to change the rules around what kind of meetings or referenda are required to lease or otherwise grant an interest in designated reserve lands. The aboriginal affairs minister would also be given the authority to call a band meeting or referendum for the purpose of considering an absolute surrender of the band's territory.
Environmental Assessment Act Tweaks
Last spring's changes to the Environmental Assessment Act are tweaked further in this omnibus bill.
Hiring Tax Credit
The bill will extend a popular small business hiring credit.
New Bridge To U.S.
C-45 also facilitates the construction of a new bridge across the Detroit River at Windsor, announced by Prime Minister Stephen Harper last summer. Certain legislation will be changed and other legislation won't apply to this bridge. Three federal bodies will cease to exist with the passage of this legislation.
Grain Act Amended
The bill also amends the Canada Grain Act, simplifying the way it classifies grain terminals, repealing grain appeal tribunals, and ending several other requirements of the current Act, giving the Canadian Grains Commission more power to regulate the grain industry. These changes follow the end of the Canadian Wheat Board's monopoly over wheat and barley sales in Western Canada, which take effect for this year's harvest.
Hazardous Materials Under Health
All the work of the Hazardous Materials Information Review Commission will be transferred to the health minister.
Merchant Seamen Board Under Labour
The Merchant Seamen Compensation Board will see its authority transferred to the Minister of Labour. The three-person board currently hears and decides benefit claims for merchant seamen who are injured or disabled as a result of their work and are not currently covered by provincial workers' compensation benefits.