Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Scrutiny of budget wanting

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There is little sense in giving Commons committees special responsibility to scrutinize government spending plans, but then undercut that duty by cutting to near useless the amount of time the committees have to review the numbers. That was what the Harper government did this year, following on the heels of introducing a massive omnibus bill that masqueraded as a budget.

An all-party parliamentary committee used the example of the time allotted -- one week -- to the standing committees to pore over the government's supplementary spending estimates as a classic example of how the scheduling of the release of financial documents thwarts good examination of how tax dollars are used.

The budget is released early in the year, usually by April, but the main estimates that lay down the primary blueprint for spending are released at about the same time. This means a lot of information in the budget, prepared by Finance, is missed within the main estimates, which are prepared by Treasury Board. There is some consultation between the departments, but not a lot, due to the necessity of keeping the budget information secret to protect financial markets.

After the budget and its new initiatives are announced, the supplementary estimates are prepared to adjust the expenditures for the year. This typically all gets crammed in by the end of June, before the House of Commons recesses for summer. This year, the Harper government announced June 6 would be the last day for supplementary estimates review by the committees. None of the committees reported back on their examinations, which meant they were "deemed to have reported."

The standing committee on government operations and estimates says something's got to give. The fix, it recommends, is to release the budget by Feb. 1. That gives the main estimates a bit more time to reflect some of the new initiatives, although it was noted the estimates take months to prepare and there will never be really good mesh between the two documents.

There are problems with the suggestions. The budget, typically a five-year plan, has been released toward the end of the fiscal year so it has the benefit of the most up-to-date economic information for the new year's forecasts of revenues. Further, because the main estimates need to be passed by the April 1 launch of the new fiscal year, the committee's suggestion they be released for review later in March will add pressure to MPs, who now complain about time constraints and the difficulty in getting good help to interpret the reams of detail.

It is ridiculous, however, to expect Parliament to give good scrutiny to spending plans that have little connection to the government's master plan for the year, especially when momentous decisions -- such as six per cent departmental spending cuts -- are being made.

Staggering release of the two primary financial planning documents is a good idea, worthy of a try even if further adjustments are needed in future years. And, yes, the recommendation to allot a minimum two-week standing committee review of supplementary estimates at least would eliminate the tacit fraud that the "deemed to report" rule now perpetuates.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Gerald Flood, Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 17, 2012 A6

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