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.