THE BLOG

Budgeting By Stealth

12/20/2013 05:16 EST | Updated 02/19/2014 05:59 EST

The Conservative Government seems to have a problem with stealth. Not so long ago, Mr. Harper fought an election over the F-35 stealth fighter. The Conservatives won, the jet has dropped off the government's agenda and the rest is history. Up until then, it was said to be the most important military acquisition since the Ross Rifle.

The Prime Minister, however, is still fond of stealth. Now, it is called lapsing. While some might consider a lapse to be a routine Conservative ethical problem, it actually has another meaning.

Lapsing is defined as the failure to spend money allocated to a department within a fiscal year. From time to time this might be considered a good thing -- such as when a program is not ready to be funded. The funds are returned to the treasury and applied to other priorities.

However, chronic and deliberate lapsing is either incompetence or dishonesty or sometimes both. Routine failure to spend money allocated by Parliament to a departmental budget speaks to a hidden agenda. In this case, it is the pathological goal to balance the budget at all costs in time for the next election, regardless of the consequences. Monies not spent go back to the Treasury, disappear and re-emerge on the other side as "surprise" surpluses: budgetary balance by stealth.

Stealth frustrates the Parliamentary Budget Officer as well. He works for all of us but is routinely stonewalled by the Conservatives as he tries to do his job. According to Revised PBO outlook and assessment 2013: Update of economic and fiscal projections, 2013: "the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat has rejected PBO's requests for information which is necessary to analyze the approximately $10 billion of budgetary authorities which went unspent in each of the past three years.The Government has failed to provide a concrete explanation for historical and projected revisions to these lapses, which were responsible for roughly $3.6 billion of the unexpected improvement in the budgetary balance in 2012-13 and which account for a significant portion of the Government's improvement going forward"

With less evidence than entitled to by mandate, the Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO) projects a surplus in 2015-16. Members of Parliament don't get basic fiscal information, the PBO is obstructed and Canadians are left bewildered.

Surplus budgeting is a worthy goal; however, the means by which the Government gets there has to be transparent. Increasing El premiums beyond sustainment and reducing eligibility is not transparent. Sale of undisclosed assets is not transparent. Lapsing budgets by stealth is not transparent.

Again, according to the same PBO document: "Little information has been provided to assess service impacts, the likelihood of achieving spending targets, and whether short-term restraint will require higher spending in future years." Even the new PBO finds this government's secrecy irritating.

Every year, the government comes before various House committees to ask for supplemental budgetary appropriations. For example, the Environment Department appeared before the Environment Committee and disclosed that it had lapsed $125-million on a budget of $1.1-billion.

The Prime Minister's indifference to environmental issues is well documented, so it should come as no surprise that there is a massive stealth cut to a relatively small budget. When pressed for more information, neither the Minister nor the Deputy Minister was able to provide much in the way of details. As a consequence, no one on the committee actually knows what programs have been cut or their service impacts.

For example the $5-million lapse to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency on a budget of $8-million may or may not have a significant impact on programs and services. No MP either from the government or Opposition side actually knows. The only distinguishing feature is that the government MPs seem either not to care or are following orders from the PMO.

One would have thought that Canadians might wish to know more rather than less about the extreme weather events being experienced and their connection to climate change.

It is not as if the questions were not asked. For example, I asked the Deputy Minister an extremely detailed series of questions -- in part because I had reason to believe that the Minister would not know the answers. To be charitable, she is new to the portfolio. As of this date and in spite of my requests and the Deputy Minister's undertaking, we still have no answers and Canadians are still in the dark about the $125-million in lapsed funding.

Recently, my colleague Kirsty Duncan asked another series of detailed questions concerning GHG negotiations with industry. In a perfunctory answer that was more revealing about Harper's Climate Change priorities than all the multimillion dollar advertising campaigns of the government and the industry put together, the government disclosed that it has spent a mere $330,000 to secure the most important regulatory deal in Canadian history.

It is generally a good rule in politics to follow the money. Show us the money trail and we the citizens will know your priorities. Mr. Harper has devised an elaborate scheme to hide his priorities from the PBO, MPs and Canadians. He presents a budget to Parliament, gets its approval and then relentlessly erodes it over time by stealth all so that his Finance Minister can say in 2015 that he has "balanced" a budget.

Stealth may be a good attribute for a fighter jet, but it is deadly for a democracy.

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