Opposition, Conservatives poised to do battle over budget transparency

OTTAWA – Opposition MPs who sit on a key House of Commons committee are poised to ask the government to turn over key financial documents in the run-up to the federal budget.

How much information Parliament and the public is allowed to see about the nation’s finances has become a hot political issue in Ottawa. This week, two former public servants published a scathing article slamming the government for not equipping parliamentarians with enough information before important votes on money bills.

A Liberal motion that will be debated behind closed doors at the public accounts committee orders the Finance department to give MPs copies of long-term financial analyses prepared between 2010 and the present.

The auditor general had asked the department to publish such analyses in his report last November, pointing out that the government had promised to do so in 2007.

“This lack of reporting means that parliamentarians and Canadians do not have all the relevant information to understand the long-term impact of budgets on the federal, provincial, and territorial governments in order to support public debate and to hold the government to account,” read the fall report.

But when opposition MPs asked a Finance department official on Tuesday whether the analyses would in fact be published, the bureaucrat said that would be up to the minister.

Assistant deputy finance minister Benoit Robidoux continually referred to another document — an October 2012 report on Canada’s aging population — as evidence the department was living up to its commitments. He also suggested that analyses written up for the minister were confidential.

Liberal Gerry Byrne, the MP behind the motion, is also advocating for MPs to get a look at any pre-budget analyses Finance Minister Jim Flaherty receives, before they are asked to vote on budget bills.

“There is a presumption that in order for this information to be valuable to parliamentarians, that it has to be delivered before a decision on appropriation is made by Parliament,” Byrne said.

NDP MP David Christopherson, the chairman of the public accounts committee, was rankled when the Finance official seemed uncertain about what the committee had the right to demand.

“It’ll be up to the committee to decide what action they’ll take, I don’t have the power to unilaterally do anything, but I am very clear on this: we as a committee of Parliament have an unfettered right to demand that documents and records be produced, period full stop,” Christopherson told The Canadian Press.

“It’s my hope that the committee will see fit to formally request that information and then we’ll see what kind of response we get. But just accepting from someone in the bureaucracy, that ‘No, MPs you can’t have those documents,’ is unacceptable.”

But it’s not clear whether the Conservatives who hold the majority on the committee will allow the motion to pass.

Tory MP Andrew Saxton had suggested earlier this week that a letter be sent to the Finance department asking for the documents, rather than a motion which would carry the strength of parliamentary privilege.

Saxton was not immediately available for comment.

This week, former Finance department officials Scott Clark and Peter DeVries joined the call for greater transparency of the government’s financial data.

“Budget documents now contain less economic and fiscal data than in any budget over the previous twenty-five years,” the pair wrote in the current issue of “Inside Policy.”

“It is simply impossible to adequately assess the economic and fiscal forecast based on the data provided. Requests for information are denied on the basis that the data constitutes ‘Cabinet Confidence.”‘

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