OTTAWA – The Harper government has rejected key reforms demanded by a House of Commons committee to eliminate the arcane rules that prevent MPs from properly scrutinizing billions of dollars in spending each year.
In a June report, the all-party committee complained that outdated rules of Parliament are keeping them in the dark about expenditures — obstructing MPs from fulfilling one of their most basic responsibilities.
Among other recommendations, the non-partisan report called on government to issue the federal budget no later than Feb. 1 each year so that other official spending documents that follow can reflect budget decisions.
Currently, detailed expenditure plans placed before parliamentary committees each spring reflect the previous year’s budget, not the current one, hobbling the ability of MPs to properly assess them.
But Tony Clement, the Treasury Board president, has rejected that recommendation.
“The government does not support a fixed date for tabling of the budget,” Clement wrote this week to New Democrat MP Pat Martin, the committee chair.
“A requirement to present its budget in the House of Commons no later than February 1 of each year would restrict the government’s flexibility in responding to global and domestic imperatives.”
Clement’s rejection came the same day the government tabled a giant omnibus budget bill with detailed initiatives that were either absent from its March 29 budget or only vaguely described.
The committee had also asked that each department’s annual spending plans, tabled in the House each spring, include details on the value of tax breaks provided to corporations and individuals.
Currently, the Finance Department produces an annual report on these so-called tax expenditures but the information is difficult to link back to departmental programs.
Clement rejected that proposal as well, saying it would make other ministers responsible for tax breaks that are solely the purview of the finance minister.
“This would not be appropriate as it would not be consistent with the principle of ministerial accountability,” Clement wrote.
Committee members also wanted a study on whether the parliamentary budget officer —currently Kevin Page, who regularly bumps heads with the Harper government — should be given independent powers as an officer of Parliament rather than working under the Library of Parliament.
Clement noted that the issue had already been studied by Parliament and that the job was considered a “natural extension” of the library’s work.
Most of the committee’s 16 recommendations fall to the House of Commons for decisions. John McCallum, vice-chair of the government operations and estimates committee, is asking the House for a debate on the proposals.
“I think that’s when the government’s true colours will emerge,” he said in an interview.
Another recommendation would require committees to spend at least two weeks studying departmental spending plans. Under current rules, committees can be deemed to have scrutinized and approved such plans without actually having examined them.
Clement partly acceded to another demand for more information about program spending, saying Treasury Board would deliver a report by March 31 next year on how it proposed to do so.
McCallum called Clement’s responses “weak,” noting that all Conservatives on the committee agreed to the recommendations.
He said members heard evidence that other countries have made their spending reviews more transparent, and that Canada has no excuse not to do likewise.