So, what's it like being an Assistant Secretary for Cabinet specializing in macroeconomic policy? Liveblogging various Langevinians at the Government Operations and Estimates Committee

What? Inquiring minds want to know! Anyway, here’s the notice, which I figured would help keep these deliberately faceless PCO officials straight for the duration of today’s meeting, which gets underway in — yikes, 22 minutes. ITQ, needless to say, will be there.

10:52:41 AM
Special pre-meeting-waiting-outside-in-the-hall report: ITQ and what appears to be an entire floor of Langevin Block, as well as a few early-bird members of the Government Ops committee, where we’re discussing at what point we can storm the room, which is currently under occupation by Citizenship and Immigration.

10:56:31 AM
Thankfully, taking the room by force turned out to be unnecessary; after what was, apparently, a surprisingly lively session with the minister, the chair – David Tilson, y’all, and no, I can’t yet tell what level of cranky he’s at, but it looks like at least a yellow alert – adjourned, and now the traditional committee switching frenzy is underway.

10:59:49 AM

“The Masters of the Universe”. That is, apparently, the name by which these particular PCO officials are known across the street. Ooh. Also, the macroeconomist mentioned in the headline? I don’t want to alarm anyone, but he looks to be about nineteen years old.

11:05:14 AM
Tim Sargent. That’s his name. Just a note, for anyone unfamiliar with the typical committee room layout: from the media table, we can’t actually see the witnesses’ nametags, so if I start calling various Universe Masters things like “Red Tie” or “The Woman”, that’s why.

Actually, The Woman, as it turns out, is the deputy chief statistician, and her name is Karen Wilson. She’s now explaining the raison d’etre of Statistics Canada – statistics, it turns out – and notes that her department has been deliberating on various issues in the context of the current economic environment: is the data being provided useful? How can it be more timely?

11:09:45 AM
If I didn’t know better, I’d think this witness is trying to make her opening statement sound as dull as possible. I hope the other Langevinians get to speak up too.

Derek Lee thanks the statistician, and then introduces the two other “institutional” witnesses: Simon Kennedy, Sargent and Marilyn McPherson, who turns out to be the only one of the three who will actually give an opening statement on behalf of PCO.

Apparently, PCO needs more money, hence the supplementary estimates. Sounds reasonable to me. Oh, specifically, PCO needs more money for the Afghanistan Task Force, and the Iaccabucci Commission, as well as the Air India Commission. Commissions always end up costing more than you expect, don’t they?

11:17:33 AM
MacPherson finishes her pitch and hands the floor over to Finance ADM Steven Richardson – the number three, according to David Akin, who is also letting me cheat by looking at his copy of the witness list. Anyway, Finance needs more money too, which is either ironic or appropos. Can it be both?

11:21:40 AM
Hurray! Questions! Starting with — Dan McTeague, who wants to know which sectors of the economy would benefit from immediate stimulus, and show results now, as opposed to a few months down the road. He poses the question to the Statistician, who is a little bemused: she reminds him that she deals with data from events that have already occured, not forecasting. McTeague won’t give up, and I can’t believe he’s going to waste his entire first round asking this woman questions she can’t answer, rather than, oh, say, asking the *macroeconomist*.

11:27:06 AM
Wilson finally gives up and defers to her colleague, Michel Girard, who does his best to handle McTeague’s stream of consciousness – now it’s something about exports and countries of origin and this is officially the worst round of questions I’ve ever heard. Come on, Bloc Quebecois. You’re our only hope. Well, you and Pat Martin.

11:31:26 AM
Well, at least Diane Bourgeois wants answers from the Finance department. That’s a plus.

She’s curious about an apparent discrepency between two sets of numbers, and I – don’t quite understand the answer, but neither does Bourgeois; she asks him to explain “in a language I understand”.

Under accrual accounting, she notes, there is a breakdown between departments, but what is the policy for cash accounting? She doesn’t understand why they can’t just use the same system. Stevenson says that the current policy is mandated by the government, and the budget has to be prepared using accrual numbers. Over at Finance, they’ve come to the conclusion that, whe explaining to the general public and parliamentarians, it’s the cash expense listing that matters, since that’s where the stimulus comes in.

11:37:38 AM
It turns out that Bourgeois’ point is that this sort of public accounts jiggery pokery makes it look like more money is being spent than is actually the case, and Stevenson explains, with apparently limitless patience, that this is all based on the recommendations of a panel that looked at the Canadian tax system.

11:39:13 AM
Jacques Gourde is up for the Conservatives, and – oh, come on, seriously? He, too, wants answers from poor Wilson, who probably expected to be taking like, two questions, about measuring the impact of the stimulus package on the economy, and HEY! YOU GUYS! The person who advises the PM on macroeconomic policy is sitting in front of you! Yes, he looks more like a World Cup player, but I promise you, he will have smart things to say! Or interesting, at least.

Anyway, Gourde then asks about provincial cooperation, and whether the government consulted the premiers, and the answer seems to be yes.

11:45:07 AM
Gourde is very, very focused on the provincial role; he wants to know whether agreements have been reached, signed, announced – when will the money start to flow? Richardson, who I have been miscalling Stevenson until now, not being the Prime Minister, declines to step all over any good news announcements that the government may be planning on that subject.

11:47:45 AM
Onto Pat Martin, who wants to know why there is nothing in the budget bill to help “average” home owners with energy efficient retrofitting. Is enabling legislation needed?

Yes, Richardson acknowledges, but that doesn’t mean people can’t act now, and buy those new windows and doors; they can be sure that the legislation will eventually show up. Pat Martin, however, points out that this is a bit of a leap of faith, considering that this is a minority government – although the budget bill will most likely get through, there is no guarantee that this theoretical bill on energy retrofit tax credits will make it through Parliament before the government falls.

That’s actually a good point. Anyway, Martin doesn’t want to tell his constituents to go forth and shop for home renovation material without legislation to guarantee that the credit will come into force. It’s a pig in a poke, he says. Pig! Poke!

11:52:52 AM
Martin then moves to the same question that was posed by Gourde earlier in the meeting – what about provincial cooperation? Yes, it’s necessary. Still.
Oh, a good question that McTeague should have asked: Will Finance be responsible for preparing the quarterly accountability reports that the Liberals have requested? The finance minister will definitely be involved in some aspects of the report, Richardson explains, but other departments will as well.

11:58:22 AM
Martha Hall Findlay kicks off the second round with a followup to Martin’s question – is the retrofit stuff not, in fact, in the bill, but mentioned in the Ways and Means motion? That seems to be the case. She also wants to know if the municipaities have been consulted, and Richardson confirms that they have. MHF, however, notes that *her* pre-budget consultations made it clear that most municipalities cannot afford to match funding.

12:02:01 PM
Okay, so MHF and Richardson go another few rounds over infrastructure funding, and provincial/municipal matching, and Richardson seems to be under the impression that the provinces can actually pick up the tab for the cities; “Interesting,” MHF notes.

The Bloc Quebecois MP whose nametag I can’t see is fascinated by this revelation; as a former mayor, he’s sceptical that the province would obligingly pay the cities’ shares, and he then is terribly disappointed to discover that Stats Can does not, in fact, have data on the current debt load for municipalities.

12:05:53 PM
How exciting! The other Finance official – Rochon – just got to speak, thereby inching ever closer to the possibility that someone from PCO will get to answer a question. Keep the dream alive. Anyway, he’s trying to reassure the Bloc on that whole municipal shared funding, but really, he may as well give that battle up for lost, because the member in question appears to have made up his mind.

12:09:09 PM
Back to Richardson, who points out that actually, some of the money earmarked for infrastructure spending has already been appropriated — yes, it’s true, it didn’t even have to wait for appropriations! — and sounds cautiously optimistic that the money for *some* projects – smaller, cheaper shorter projects – will start flowing soon.

12:10:37 PM
Patrick Brown feels that some of these questions aren’t paying sufficient tribute to the “successes” of the infrastructure package and the stimulus plan — which was introduced *last week*, mind you — and wonders how this was handled during the early 1990s — one-time infrastructure projects, cost-sharing is, and has always been required, he contends. Eventually, Richardson figures out what the answer is that he wants, and obliges.

More questions about municipal cost-sharing ensue, as Brown attempts what, in a courtroom setting, would be called re-direct; having dispatched the cities issue to his satisfaction, he asks for more details on the retrofit program; there are complementary programs already in place, Richarsdon agrees.

12:16:51 PM
Back to Martha Hall Findlay, who has more questions about the Building Canada Fund and other existing infrastructure spending programs; so far, she suggests, only $80 million has “flowed” to these projects, which doesn’t bode well for the money that will be made available under *this* infrastructure push. Richardon thinks that number might be a little low, but doesn’t actually contradict it, and explains how this fund differs from *past* infrastructure programs. “This is different” seems to be the gist.

MHF wonders if there have been any projections for homes undergoing renovations versus those that were already underway: what her “anecdotal evidence” has suggested is that the construction industry may not be able to accomodate these plans. Richardson agrees that this is something worth looking at, and Rochon pipes up as well to reassure the committee that he expects there *will* be sufficient capacity, and thank heavens for that.

12:24:08 PM
The chair – Derek Lee, in case I didn’t mention that yet in this post – can’t stand it anymore; he goes after Richardson on the issue of money flow, noting that if there are still funds left over from the last budget, why would he think this money will flow more quickly? At one point, poor Richardson has to confess that he’s not an expert on infrastructure, at which point Simon Kennedy – a Langevinian, and an important one, too, although not, sadly, a macroeconomist genius – explains the difference between now and then. I’m so excited to hear fom someone other than the Finance guys that I promptly miss the details.

12:27:31 PM
Over to Rob Anders, who wonders which incentive has more of an impact on the economy: cuts to personal income taxes, or a lowered GST. The answer is a balanced package, says Rochon. Anders gets a bit grumpy when none of the other officials want to wade in. “All mum,” he notes with disappointment. At one point, it looked like Sargant might have been considering speaking up, but alas. He looks like he should have a British accent, but I suspect we may never know.

Rob Anders asks for an explanation of the difference between cash and accrual accounting, which makes me tune out completely, only to jolt awake when he mentions that ‘cash is very lumpy.’

12:32:51 PM
Having run out of questions already, Anders turns over the rest of his time to Chris Warkentin, who looks like he could be on the opposing World Cup team from Sargent, and who happily asks the Statistician a question or two about statistics.

12:35:26 PM
Diane Bourgeois wonders about tax shelters, particularly offshore, and Richardson points to a recent report on international taxation that found Canadian businesses would be at a *disadvantage* if a particular section of the Act hadn’t been removed. Bourgeois notes that those experts were talking about multinationals, not small and medium-sized businesses; the two quibble for a moment or two, and eventually she drops it and moves on to ask the Statistician whether she has done any research on security regulators, national or otherwise. Which she hasn’t. Odd, that.

12:38:56 PM
Pat Martin gets the very last slot, and uses it to explain why *his* party is having such trouble supporting this budget: What possible economic stimulus could come from taking the right to sue for equal pay for women, for instance? He also has a metaphor that I suspect may be a work in progress that describes the budget as a neoconservative pinata, and when Ignatieff smashes it, all these neocon policies will rein down.

12:42:18 PM
Wait, one more question for the government – rookie MP Paul Calandra, to be specific, who wants to be sure that we won’t sacrifice accountability for speed, and also wants the Finance guys to repeat that stuff they said about there being plenty of projects that are – and I just realized not a single person has yet used the following phrase – “shovel-ready”.
Richardson points out that every project will be approved by parliament, and lists a few other accountability measures. Also, there are at least a few municipalities – well, two, including Calandra’s riding of Markham – that have “expressed interest” in the funds.

12:46:24 PM
Derek Lee elicits the tidbit of information that previous infrastructure funds could be “reprofiled”, but the money allotted under this budget would lapse if not used within the year.

12:49:09 PM
Wait, that may not have been Richardson who discussed the accountability measures. I’ll have to check the blues, but it may have been Simon Kennedy. Yes, it *was* Simon Kennedy.

12:51:01 PM
And that’s it for the Masters of the Universe; the chair dismisses the witnesses, and ITQ is tempted to take advantage of the lull to flee herself, even though there are apparently a few routine motions on the agenda.

12:54:42 PM
The chair whips through a few truly routine routine motions in record time, and then adjourns, which means that ITQ can now sign off with a clear conscience. If anyone made it to the end, I’ll be back on the liveblogging berry at 3:30pm, but at the moment, my thumbs – and my brain – need a break.