Harper's budget limbo: Lower every time - Macleans.ca

Harper’s budget limbo: Lower every time

Harper has a new assignment for Tony Cement—and Clement generally does what he’s sent to do


The National Post‘s John Ivison, who was tipped to yesterday’s deputy minister shuffle and is very happy about this deputy minister shuffle, has an interesting line in passing in today’s column that’s worth pausing to consider.

John notes that Tony Clement “has been named head of a Cabinet sub-committee looking at further efficiencies across all departments, described as ‘a strategic review on steroids’ by one senior Conservative.”

These are words that have meaning. You’ll have noticed that Kevin Page is feuding with the senior public service — and with Tony Clement! — over details of cuts announced in the 2012 budget. (If you follow the link, an obvious question will come to mind, and I can indeed confirm that everyone in Ottawa is jealous of the view from CTV’s office.)

But note that the cuts whose nature Page is trying to determine aren’t the first cuts the Harper government has implemented. There was, before the 2012 “Strategic Operating Review” cuts, which amount to about $5 billion a year in program spending, there was the 2011 “strategic review” cuts, which amounted to $2.4 billion over three years.

I tried briefly, before and again after the 2011 election, to raise some fuss over the 2011 strategic review cuts. I got precisely nowhere. More recently my colleague John Geddes wrote to 14 government departments seeking details of those cuts, which were announced before the 2011 election, re-announced after the election, and have been implemented. Geddes received no usable answer from the departments he queried. Last week we ran into some people from the Parliamentary Budget Office who said they, too, have simply given up on finding any answer about the details of the 2011 cuts. Page is, so far, having better luck gleaning details of the 2012 cuts. But it takes a lot of work, because the answers are simply never timely, complete, or centrally collated.

I too was intrigued when I received notice of Tony Clement’s appointment to lead this new subcommittee of the cabinet’s powerful Priorities and Planning committee. Clement comes in for his share of mockery, but it’s worth noting that Stephen Harper doesn’t ever assign him to do nothing. The G8 gazebo stuff, the abolition of the obligatory long-form census, the 2012 cuts: Clement generally does what he’s sent to do.

So now the Harper government is proceeding to do another round of government cuts, the third in as many years, with probably the same scale of ambition, billions of dollars cut over a few years. That scale suggests that the savings advertised by John Ivison’s sources…

In recent months, Treasury Board has introduced new rules that will see ministers required to approve spending for all departmental events that cost more than $25,000; eliminated overtime for ministerial drivers; ended parking subsidies for federal executives; brought thousands more public servants under the authority of the Lobbying Act; banned March Madness, when departments rush to spend their operating budgets before the fiscal year end; and, required public servants to get ministerial approval before sub-contracting to former bureaucrats.

… do not begin to cover the savings that will actually be implemented. When those savings are implemented, we will receive few details and be stymied in our request for more. The notion of cuts will be popular and their nature hard to determine. It will be the third time in as many years Harper has trimmed the Canadian federal state, and it comes after the GST cuts of 2006 and 2007, the “fiscal balance” package of transfers to the provinces in 2007, and more. The sum of many trims is a transformation. Lately I’ve been puzzling over the nature of the mission Harper sees for himself as a majority prime minister, but I needn’t ever wonder. It is this. It is always this.



Harper’s budget limbo: Lower every time

  1. “I’m not in favor of abolishing the government. I just want to shrink
    it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”
    Grover Norquist.

    • Though I suspect he means the US Government, I wonder if Mr. Norquist would include the Government of Israel in that quote?

      Now THAT would be interesting Emilyone. Yes?

    • Yeah that was the view of a twelve year old.
      What else do they think is the right way to behave?

      • I think that mentally they are still in 1776….the small towns and merchants and farmers of that era…..they even call major TV events ‘town halls’.

        So they just don’t realize that level of local govt can’t handle 300M people….and worse, foreign wars.

  2. A smaller federal government and a reduction in the power of the civil servant’s desk are good goals, so I don’t know why the government needs to be so secretive about it. Sure, there are a lot of powerful corporate and bureaucratic vested interests that will have to be fought, but I believe that the part of the Canadian public that actually generates tax revenue would support it.

    The fact that they are being open about all the cuts John Ivison mentions (which not even lefties can defame as being bad moves for accountability of the public service) but are being quiet about others just invites suspicion. If you don’t know what’s coming you can’t criticize the cut and not being able to challenge outside of elections is almost as bad as not being able to challenge the bureaucracy at all.

    Some of the cuts are going to be controversial, and you are going to have to stand up to those who will scream. While government can do a great many things, it can’t do everything for everybody.

    • They are secretive for the usual reasons. When cuts are made by government departments, they are rarely for purely economic reasons. They usually focus on what can be cut without too much effort while achieving the percentage goal and retaining pet programs. For stuff that is politically sensitive or doesn’t make a lot of sense in the big picture, there may be a campaign of “information” leaks to prepare the ground. What is rarely reported is the true savings net of additional costs transferred to others (be they provincial coffers, users or increases in costs for other programs that are consequentially affected – e.g. crime bill vs prison budget).

    • From the Forbes interview with Clement:

      “Last fall, while Clement was drafting their 2012 budget, Canadian unions lashed out by saying they were being cut out of the conversation. Clement responded in writing. He sent a letter to Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) President John Gordon and said, “To date, I have not received a single constructive recommendation from you as to how we can make the federal government more efficient and provide better value for Canadian taxpayers. Your silence … leads me to conclude that the PSAC believes there is no room for streamlining government….”

      Clement was pointing out that the unions had cut themselves out of the conversation. But though Clement’s letter went public, most of the Canadian press ignored it. The Canadian press is sympathetic to the public unions’ interests. For example, on June 18, 2012 the Ottawa Citizen reported: “One of Canada’s largest federal unions could face extinction as an independent organization unless its members accept a 42-percent dues increase to forestall a financial crisis triggered by the Conservatives’ job cuts.”

      They were talking about The Canadian Association of Professional Employees (CAPE) proposal to increase dues by $15-a-month because some of their members had been laid off. CAPE said they needed the money to make up for an expected 10-percent drop in membership because of government spending cuts. Ironically, CAPE mostly represents government economists, research assistants at the Library of Parliament and social scientists. Austerity, it seems, is particularly distasteful to those who teach Keynesian economics.

      • Clement also said that the head statistician assured him that moving to a voluntary survey could provide results just as reliable as the non-voluntary. He also said that the money for border security was spent on exactly that.

        So why you’d believe anything out of his mouth without some sort of independent verification is beyond me. Is it gullibility or simply wishful thinking?

        • “……Is it gullibility or simply wishful thinking?……”

          Oh dear!
          If you are meaning to be humourous, you have succeeded.

        • A long form census is ancient history. Corporations and political parties have moved on to Big Data, which provides pretty much real time information about populations compared to a long form census.

          Governments and academia have to start using Big Data, or their programs and research will be relatively useless.

          Government and academia have to start using big data, or corporations and interest groups using Big Data will be literally running decades ahead of governments and academia in policy and research.

          • Thwim’s comment wasn’t about the relative merits of census data, it was about Clement’s flat-out lies about it.

            So – do you believe a politician who has a record of lying to the public?

    • This is a real question, not anything sarcastic or ironic, Why are a smaller federal government and reductions in civil service power good goals? This is frequently simply dropped as a virtuous outcome but I’m at a loss as to why. Isn’t an effective government and civil service more important?

      • For the same reason income inequality is a problem. If you have a large public service you find it very difficult to control or defend yourself from their resources.

        Likewise, you need it to be public service to be small to have their expenses and operations be transparent and easily understood by auditors and the general public.

        Finally, every dollar you take from a taxpayer is a dollar they could be using for the flourishing of their own family. Generally, I believe that people know their own interests best and that while taxation and services are important, most things are best left to households and the private sector if it can be helped. I hold the ongoing terrible conditions on native reserves in this country, and the amount of government control over those people to be telling in terms of what happens if you let the civil service have too much power.

        As for the size of the federal government, I firmly believe that no higher level of government should do something that can be reasonably handled locally. I realize there are trade-offs (such as economies of scale) but I prefer the greater transparency and control over my own destiny that comes from local government. Others will see things differently of course, and have a stronger feeling for their national identity than their regional one.

        • Thank you for the clarification. As you note there are other ways to view this and I differ slightly from you in that I still remain unconvinced that small is essentially better not small. That being said, I certainly agree with you that the bureaucracy has a dismal record in some areas.
          I value the potential for a national government and its structures to bring an overarching national perspective to issues that concern the entire country. While I remain skeptical about both the previous and current government’s commitment to the entire country I would rather see some fundamental reforms made than throwing the baby out with the bath water in the service of smaller over larger.
          I can’t recall the source but there is a saying that keep a government poor and weak and it will be your servant but if it is rich and powerful it will be your master. I name this as a false dichotomy and I think you and I would agree that a national government that manages/spends our money well, responds to our national concerns and needs, controls the natural excesses that any structured system, i.e. civil service, is prone to and is transparent and ultimately accountable to us as the electorate is what we need.
          Warm regards

  3. Good read from an American viewpoint:
    What President Obama Doesn’t Want You To Know About Canada

    With President Barack Obama claiming the government builds success, not individuals, Mitt Romney should look north to a story Obama would rather Americans didn’t notice. Canada is outperforming the U.S. on every economic front and they’re doing it with policies Republicans say they’d like to implement.

    For the inside scoop I interviewed Tony Clement, Canada’s President of the Treasury Board (the COO for the Government of Canada who is responsible for managing spending among other duties) and a Member of Parliament with the Conservative Party of Canada.

    He was enthusiastic. This is a story he wants to tell. A story that people south of the border should be paying attention to. According to senior Canadian officials who’ve had closed-door meetings with Obama administration officials, the White House has been curious about how Canada is growing. When Canadian’s told them how, they even toyed with implementing some of the same policies.

    The Conservative Party of Canada, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, also passed a budget loaded with real cuts last March. Clement explained, “We cut 2% from the overall budget, but we didn’t touch health care and other entitlement spending, as we’d promised not to. Our overall budget is about $250 billion. We focused on the $80 billion that’s outside of health care and other social programs. Of this portion our goal was to cut between 5% and 10%. We ended up cutting 6.9%.”


  4. Cuts = savings ? Sometimes, I suppose. Sometimes it’s transferring
    the costs to someone else.

  5. Education and health care are where spending has to increase. These are primarily provincial responsibilities. There is only one taxpayer. So since the provinces have to grow spending, the federal government has to shrink (why health care transfers grow).

    This is the basic reality, until the baby boom generation dies off.

    To quote Bill Clinton. It is simple arithmetic

    • As a baby boomer I’m dying as fast as I can. I’d try harder but
      the harder I try, the more fun I have.
      Meanwhile, I’m trying to figure out why we should sell your oil …

    • Actually health care spending is due to be capped.

      Once the dust has settled, assuming Harper gets his way, what will really change in this country other than the provinces will now be overtaxed in order to shoulder their extra responsibilities? There being only one tax payer after all.
      At bottom this is simply about ideology. Harper and his acolytes want to ensure that no future national govt can intrude on provincial matters as they perceive them to be. So what you say? What is the down side? In order to meet it’s vastly increased responsibilities w/o racking up the debt, the provinces will need every available weapon at their disposal. Removing obstacles like federal regulation of the environment and throwing away whatever remaining leverage the feds have over national standards is part of the package.Next up at some point – reform of equalization payments.
      It boils down to two [or more] diametrically opposed views of how this country should function and what we are willing to sacrifice or impose in terms of national standards to make this happen.
      Harper thinks he’s strengthening this country by divesting the federal govt of its traditional role as leveler and gatekeeper. The real sin is that he is not prepared to have this debate out in the open because he knows he will either lose outright or be forced to put water in his wine – we all know by now which option Harper favours; bake the medicine into the cake as secretly as possible and make us eat it ,whether we all like it or not.

      • “At bottom this is simply about ideology. Harper and his acolytes want to
        ensure that no future national govt can intrude on provincial matters
        as they perceive them to be.”

        I don’t know that that captures it all. It’s not just a matter of which level of government provides which services. Ten provincial governments are not equivalent to one federal government. This is a permanent weakening of government capabilities in Canada.

        Consider the federal government’s role in the environment: only a federal government can enforce national standards, balance costs across regions and lead a national effort to reduce greenhouse gases. Only the federal government has the scope and funding to conduct research relevant to the whole country.

        Or health care: without federal standards, we’ll wind up with a patchwork of coverage nationwide. Standards of care and access will drift, and some regions are bound to begin to privatize.

        When I look at who Harper is really taking care of here, it’s big business. I don’t believe it’s a matter of province’s rights, I think he sees this approach as the best way to undermine government nationwide.

        • Perhaps i did it badly, but i thought i had said that when i mentioned the bit about competing visions of the way the country should work?
          I’m in complete agreement with you.

      • Health care is NOT due to be capped. After 6% increases till 2015, it then shifts to a minimum of 3% or nominal GDP growth whichever is larger. Nominal GDP growth includes growth in the economy plus inflation. In a normal economy…inflation at 2% and GDP growth at 3%, nominal GDP increases 5%.

        • Do you have a source for that? I [mis]understood that it was not going to be indexed at a nominal minimum, beyond inflation.

          • Legislation will be introduced to ensure the current 6-per-cent annual escalator for the Canada Health Transfer (CHT) will continue for five more years. Starting in 2017–18, the CHT will grow in line with a three-year moving average of nominal GDP growth, with funding guaranteed to increase by at least 3 per cent per year.


          • thanks.

  6. Tired of the government 37% of us deserve….

  7. Frankly, if the cuts are so devastating, you should be able to see a difference in the delivery of government services, the success of government programs and the extent of government assets.
    If you can’t find any visible differences, then clearly the cuts are not only beneficial but sorely needed.
    The PBO, Aaron Wherry, the opposition and others want to claim there is a disaster going on. Well, where is it? Given the extent of the cuts, it should be easy to point out the negative impact with some real quantitative and qualitative evidence. Let’s have it.

    • Or perhaps you can’t see a difference because those affected have no significant voice.

      Or is this a case of “It’s fine as long as it happens to someone else?”

      • That’s what journalists are for. So, in other words, you want to pretend there are imaginary differences to suit your ideology. I like to live in the real world.

        • Your everyday life must be so disappointing then.

        • The fact that this article is about cut information not being available to journalists makes the parent comment above esp. stupid, even for that particular poster.

          • No.. not in that sense. He’s arguing we should be able to see the effects from the cuts, even if the HoC prevents us from seeing what the cuts actually are.

            Of course, believing that there’s such a simplistic relationship, or that the results would be immediately apparent, is asinine, but that’s hardly out of character.

          • ah, i see. I return my opinion of the poster to his regular level of foolishness, rather than a newly advanced one.

          • You’ve proven that simple concepts do not always exceed your ability to comprehend.

          • Indeed, that’s why we’re able to converse at all.
            Now if only you could prove the same, we’d be getting somewhere.

          • You completely missed the point. Totally and completely. If there are such dire consequences from the cuts, you should not have to ask the government what they are. You can ask those affected instead. If the cuts have no visible consequences, then the government is under no obligation to tell anyone about them, just like they don’t need to tell you what they ate for breakfast, because there is no change in the level of services, programs and anything else visible to public.
            Why I need to explain this again I don’t know. It’s not a difficult concept.

          • see below.

          • You should probably downplay the fact that Thwim has shown greater comprehension skills.

          • Absolutely. For example, if you cut funding for post-secondary education, within days you’d see a decline in the workforce skill and civic engagement, health care worker shortages, etc. If cuts to Fisheries are a problem, in a couple of weeks you should see any decline in fish stocks, degradation of habitat or reduction in landings.
            And on through the departments – I can’t imagine any cuts taking more than, say, a month for their full impacts to be felt.

          • Well, let’s take your examples.
            1. We know what happens when you cut education funding. Ask Dalton Mcguinty. It does not go unnoticed. In fact, it cannot be done without union agreement. If provincial transfers are cut, we know what happens as well. Refer to the incessant battles that go on whenever transfers are changed. You can’t hide transfer cuts because the guy on the receiving end will notice.
            2. Fisheries. I fail to see how more money creates more fish, unless you are referring to fish farms. You’re talking about regulations and enforcement, not funding, that’s what fisheries is all about. Really though, there’s not much to cut in fisheries, it’s not a big department and takes a minuscule, infinitesimal fraction of spending. There’s not enough spending there. You could eliminate the whole department and it would have little overall spending impact or budget impact.

            Anyway, like I said before, if there will be a negative impact, you’ll know about it. The government will not publicize an issue when there is no negative impact. They will publicize the benefits though, and the benefits are the bottom line of their budget and everyone’s taxes.

          • What’s great about this is that we can go round and round with hypothetical possibilities all day, because the government (so far) hasn’t told us what they’ve actually cut.

            With regard to any potential negative consequences of whatever’s been cut, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

          • “I fail to see…”

            No kidding. If you fail to see that some funding decision take years or decades to for the implications to fully play out, failure to see is likely your defining characteristic.

          • Oh, you’re back to Thwim’s point. All that to repeat the same thing. This ranks as one of the worst arguments you guys have concocted. You want to say there is no evidence for your assertion because it will take years for the evidence to appear, while at the same time trying to argue there is widespread damage. This is a truly pathetic argument, worthy of a first grader.

            I’ll repeat, AGAIN, what you really want:

            You want to pretend there are imaginary differences to suit your ideology. I like to live in the real world.

          • You want to say there is no evidence for your assertion because it will take years for the evidence to appear, while at the same time trying to argue there is widespread damage. This is a truly pathetic argument, worthy of a first grader.

            No one’s arguing that there IS widespread damage, what people are arguing is that we can’t even begin to assess even the POTENTIAL of damage if the government refuses to tell us what was cut.

            You can no more argue that there WON”T be damage from cuts that we have no details about than anyone can argue that there is damage or will be. If we don’t know what was cut, neither of us can assess the impact of the cuts either way. My assumption that the cuts COULD end up being bad because we can’t know the potential long term effects of cuts that the government won’t tell us about is no less valid than your assumption that the cuts must be good because there haven’t been any dramatic short term effects seen yet. Neither one of us can tell if Schrodinger’s budget cuts are good or bad, but we’re even MORE handicapped by the fact that Schrodinger won’t even tell us which box the cuts are in.

          • No evidence for what “assertion”? Provide the direct quote please.

        • I love how quickly we’ve moved from believing that government transparency was important to arguing “Don’t worry, if there’s anything amiss with what the government’s doing I’m sure some journalists will figure it out”.

          • Speak for yourself. That’s you, not “we”.

          • My apologies. I didn’t mean to imply that you ever believed that government transparency was important.

          • Back to your usual silly lies, I can see. This childishness is quite old and since I’ve seen it before I won’t bother with it. You replied to me repeatedly here, somewhat obsessively, and now you finish it off with this kind of infantile talk? You need a therapist, or at least a little maturity, one or the other.

          • Perhaps I’m dogging you a bit here (though hardly obsessively) but it’s only because your argument seems so patently ridiculous to me. Asking for the details on billions of dollars in budget cuts is the equivalent of asking what they had for breakfast? Because if the budget cuts had been bad for the country we’d already be hearing about the damage? And if we’re not hearing about the damage yet because the people being harmed don’t have a strong public voice, then that’s why we have journalists??? It’s ludicrous.

            Is it really SO MUCH to ask that the government lay it’s budget cut plans before the citizenry BEFORE they’re enacted rather than cutting first and then refusing to tell us what’s been cut? Arguing that we should simply trust that if the cuts were going to cause harm they’d have done so by now, and that if they’ve done so already, Aaron will probably find out for us, eventually, is CRAZY TALK.

            How am I supposed to believe that there have even been cuts? What if it’s all just an accounting trick? Are you really suggesting that if the Chretien Liberals had made billions of dollars of budget cuts in the 90s without explaining what had been cut you would have just taken their word for it? Would you have really said “I’m sure they cut the right things, and asking them what they’ve cut would just be pestering them unnecessarily”?


          • At this point, of the two options I listed, I would recommend therapy. You have issues.

          • The mature one declared game over due to insanity. That’s convenient, I guess there’s no choice but to award victory to you then?

          • There is no game, there is no victory, you’re back to your bizarre comments. You have a lot of issues too, perhaps you can get a group rate with LKO on a therapy session.

          • ahhh…can you come in with us and hold our hands?

          • Not to worry, he’ll be back to liberal bias in the media before you know it.

          • It is arguably liberal media bias, though I seem to remember Martin taking flack in the 90s when the Liberals were cutting spending (though I admittedly can’t recall how open the Liberals were about what was being cut, it seems to me that it wasn’t a secret). However, it would seem clear that Wherry and his ilk are holding the Tories to a higher standard of transparency and accountability than the Liberals were held, which understandably shocks the Tories.

            Why does the media insist on holding the Tories to a higher standard of transparency and accountability than their predecessors? Where did they get this notion that the Harper Tories were going to conduct themselves differently than the Chretien Liberals? Honestly, reading the news these days you’d think that the Tories had spent years running in elections on the promise of being more open, transparent and accountable than their predecessors. How DARE the MSM demand better of today’s Tory government. What would compel the media to act this way???

          • True enough.Although i’ve never wholly bought the liberal bias shtick. My theory is they just like winners. To that end they bet on all the horses, but woe betide you if you stumble badly.
            I suspect that new technology has also allowed for fewer journos to keep a much closer eye on present day pols than even as little as ten years ago. Although, whether the lack of in depth follow up and attention span of the media is working more for the pols than the media or the public perception of the media, is a matter of debate. I’d be scared to death to be a modern day high profile politician myself.

      • “……..Or is this a case of “It’s fine as long as it happens to someone else?”……..”

        And what, pray tell, is wrong with that?
        All of Canada does it to all the Developing World countries it rapes. And there ain’t nuthin’ wrong with that either!
        The strong survive and the weak perish. It says so in the bible – I think.

    • Frankly, if the cuts are so devastating, you should be able to see a difference in the delivery of government services, the success of government programs and the extent of government assets. If you can’t find any visible differences, then clearly the cuts are not only beneficial but sorely needed.

      Then again, if the cuts are beneficial and sorely needed, why is the government keeping them secret?

      • They’re not. They’re publicizing the money being saved, which is the important part and the only interesting part, if there are no visible negative consequences.

        • Well, I guess I should just trust the government then and assume that whatever they cut needed to be cut despite the fact that they don’t want to tell me what they cut.


          It’s like the Tories always said, transparency is for suckers, and demanding better is obnoxious.

        • What’s your timeline on “visible negative consequences”? It would seem to me that some of the worst effects of cuts could well be the types of effects you can’t actually see for a few years, and then when the consequences become apparent you’re so far down the road that the money you have to spend fixing the consequences absolutely dwarfs the money you would have spent had you not made the cuts in the first place. Of course, we won’t know until it’s too late if these are the sorts of consequences we can expect to see some day, since the government doesn’t want to tell us what we’re cutting.

  8. I’m so heartily sick of their carpet bombing the airwaves with incessant propaganda about Canada’s Economic Plan, I would humbly suggest Clement start by trimming several hundred million from their advertizing budget.

    • Forget trimming money from their advertising budget, I’d be happy if they just STUCK to their advertising budget.

      As has been reported recently, the Harper government has overshot it’s advertising budget by at least 25% EVERY SINGLE YEAR SINCE BEING ELECTED. In 2009/10 they overshot their $85.3 million advertising budget by $51 million.

      I can’t help but enjoy the irony of a “conservative” government refusing to detail what they’re cutting from the budget while simultaneously overspending on advertising to tout all the money they’re spending!

  9. In the picture above, is that a GAZEBO that Clement is taking the PM on a tour of???

    • I actually thought it might be THE Gazebo.

      • I wish! That place they’re walking actually looks big enough to be worth $500,000, maybe. That said, we KNOW it’s not THE gazebo. Clement and the Prime Minister never got anywhere NEAR that gazebo during the G8. That thing was in the middle of nowhere! LOL