August 14, 2020

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Tories' financial update full of holes

Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 13/12/2019 (244 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

For a government that says it wants to be more open and accountable to the public, Manitoba Finance has sure came up short in its latest financial update.

Finance Minister Scott Fielding released the province’s mid-year financial report on Friday. Unlike past updates, there is no breakdown of departmental spending. There’s also no detail on individual revenue sources, such as how much the province is taking in from income tax, the PST or corporate taxes. Also, where government, in the past, provided a breakdown of planned and updated spending on infrastructure – such as highways, schools, hospitals and flood protection – the Pallister government provided almost no detail on capital spending this year.

Finance Minister Scott Fielding released the province’s mid-year financial report on Friday. Unlike past updates, there is no breakdown of departmental spending. (John Woods / Free Press files)

Finance Minister Scott Fielding released the province’s mid-year financial report on Friday. Unlike past updates, there is no breakdown of departmental spending. (John Woods / Free Press files)

The report says government was unable to disclose departmental spending details because departments have been realigned since the last election. It promises to start reporting that detail again in the next update.

"That’s because of the late cabinet shuffle… so it’s a process thing where we weren’t able to break them down because of the change of some of the departments," Fielding told reporters.

That explanation makes very little sense. Governments realign departments all the time. That shouldn’t stop them from providing taxpayers with accurate, updated reports on how their money is being spent. It never has in the past.

Quarterly reports from Manitoba Finance are usually 12 to 15 pages and contain details about budgeted amounts for each department, as well as year-end projections for each. The reports document whether each department is over, under or on budget. It also provides updates on individual taxes and other revenues, including a breakdown of federal transfers.

That explanation makes very little sense. Governments realign departments all the time. That shouldn’t stop them from providing taxpayers with accurate, updated reports on how their money is being spent. It never has in the past.

None of that was in Friday’s four-page report.

The updates normally include 10 or more categories of infrastructure spending, including capital expenditures on highways, flood mitigation, health care, education, municipalities and housing. It shows the public where spending levels are at in each category. Friday’s report lumped those into four broad categories, resulting in almost no detailed update on infrastructure spending.

Ironically, on the same day, the Pallister government announced a new online "scorecard" system that’s supposed to provide the public with new, updated information about government performance, broken down by sector, such as health care, justice and education. The new grading system is designed to make government more open and accountable to the public, Fielding said. Yet there was far less openness and transparency in the minister's latest financial update than there’s been in years.

Maybe this is just a one-off. We’ll see when the next update comes out. But when the government fails to disclose detailed financial information where it has done so in the past, it should be flagged. It’s not a good sign.

It’s great the government appears to be on track with its budget this year. Manitoba Finance is projecting a $350-million deficit for 2019-20, according to the report (down slightly from a budgeted shortfall of $360 million). But those figures are meaningless without a breakdown of revenues and expenditures.

Maybe this is just a one–off. We’ll see when the next update comes out. But when the government fails to disclose detailed financial information where it has done so in the past, it should be flagged. It’s not a good sign.

The public will still get to see the audited year-end books. That won’t change. In many areas, the Pallister government has improved the province’s financial reporting, including more accurate accounting of assets and liabilities.

But quarterly financial updates are important. Annual budgets are dynamic; they change throughout the year. Governments always make adjustments along the way to respond to changing circumstances. Taxpayers have a right to see what those changes are during a fiscal year and how government is addressing them. If government underspends in health care or education, the public has a right to know why and by how much. They deserve detailed, accurate updates throughout the year to monitor government’s performance.

That’s what being open and accountable is all about.

The excuse by the Pallister government that it couldn’t provide that level of openness and accountability in this report because of a cabinet shuffle, or a slight change in the makeup of a few departments, is disingenuous. It’s a cop-out.

tom.brodbeck@freepress.mb.ca

Tom Brodbeck

Tom Brodbeck
Columnist

Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.

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