The Scene. Page 11 of the Conservative Party of Canada’s campaign platform for the general election of 2006 contains no less than 11 individual promises. Three of those appear under the heading “Ensure truth in budgeting with a Parliamentary Budget Authority.”
“A Conservative government will,” the Conservative party promised, “create an independent Parliamentary Budget Authority to provide objective analysis directly to Parliament about the state of the nation’s finances and trends in the national economy; require government departments and agencies to provide accurate, timely information to the Parliamentary Budget Authority to ensure it has the information it needs to provide accurate analyses to Parliament; ensure that government fiscal forecasts are updated quarterly and that they provide complete data for both revenue and spending forecasts.”
It was on such vows that the Conservatives first formed government six years ago. And it was on this general idea that Thomas Mulcair rose with some concern this afternoon.
“Mr. Speaker, once again the Conservatives are trying to hide the truth about their Trojan Horse budget,” he reported. “The Parliamentary Budget Officer has told the Prime Minister’s Office that they are breaking the law by refusing to hand over information to Parliament. Now the PBO’s legal counsel, among the most respected in Canada have told the Prime Minister the same thing, saying, ‘The 64 departments that have not yet provided the requested information are not acting in compliance with the act.’ This is the Prime Minister’s own Accountability Act that we are talking about,” Mr. Mulcair clarified. “Why is the Prime Minister breaking his government’s own accountability law?”
The leader of the opposition stressed the word “own.”
In the Prime Minister’s absence, it was John Baird’s duty to stand and dance around the general concept of irony.
“Mr. Speaker, this Prime Minister and this government will continue to report to Parliament through the means that have been used for many years,” the Foreign Affairs Minister deferred. “This includes the estimates, the supplementary estimates, quarterly reports and the public accounts.”
Later, in response to a question from Peggy Nash, Tony Clement—Mr. Baird’s partner in overseeing the use of the “Border Infrastructure Fund” to build gazebos and public toilets in Muskoka—would offer similar assurances about the proper reporting practices of Parliament and fair government savings. “We will continue to report to Parliament through the normal means, including estimates, quarterly financial reports and public accounts,” he explained. “We will clearly indicate that under the Economic Action Plan of Canada in 2012, we have found savings measures that are fair, balanced and moderate in order to reduce the deficit.”
The second part of Mr. Baird’s argument was, of course, the sanctity of the collective bargaining process. “Based on our current collective bargaining arrangements with our employees, we are working with the departments to inform unions and employees of any affected changes,” he explained. “We think we owe it to tell them first before they learn about it on television.”
It is probably necessary to note that the unions in question would seem to see no problem with the Parliamentary Budget Officer receiving the information he has requested, so long as individual employees are not identified.
Mr. Mulcair was unpersuaded. Indeed, his concern not only remained, but extended to the government’s backbenchers. “Mr. Speaker, the law is crystal clear,” the leader of the opposition ventured. “The Federal Accountability Act requires that members of Parliament be given ‘free and timely access to any financial or economic data in the possession of the department.’ That is the law. Financial and economic data sounds like the sort of thing that Conservative members might like to see themselves before they vote on the budget.”
Carol Hughes thumped her desk in agreement.
“Why is the Prime Minister showing his own MPs such blatant disrespect?” Mr. Mulcair wondered.
Strangely, no government backbenchers stood to applaud, but Mr. Baird did stand to respond, or at least to chop his hand and expound at length without directly dealing with the question asked. “Mr. Speaker, it is this government which held unprecedented consultations in preparing budget 2012. It is a plan for long-term economic growth and prosperity. It has low taxes, balances the budget and those are absolutely key and essential to creating a good economic climate,” Mr. Baird proclaimed. “Those of us on this side of the House consulted for many months leading up to that budget. We have had an unprecedented amount of debate in Parliament and committee and we saw last week, more than 157 times, the House vote full confidence in the measures brought forward by this Minister of Finance for job creation and economic growth.”
A half dozen Conservative MPs stood to applaud this.
Amid such indisputably good news, it is to wonder why the Harper government would turn away any opportunity to expound at length on the details. Perhaps those plans to consolidate the government’s computer systems have hit a snag.
The Stats. The budget, eight questions. Ethics and immigration, six questions each. Trade, the environment and the military, four questions each. The United Nations, military procurement, the Library of Parliament and employment, one question each.
John Baird, Pierre Poilievre and Jason Kenney, six responses each. Gerald Keddy and Peter MacKay, four responses each. Vic Toews, three responses. Joe Oliver, Peter Kent and Diane Finley, two responses each. Tony Clement, Christian Paradis, Rona Ambrose and Peter Van Loan, one response each.