The Commons: Tony Clement would prefer you disregard his estimates now

Rest assured, the Conservatives are saving money. Somehow.

On Monday, Tony Clement, President of the Treasury Board, presented to the House of Commons the government’s main estimates. This was apparently cause for celebration. Indeed, according to Mr. Clement’s office, the main estimates “reflect the Government of Canada’s ongoing commitment to finding savings and returning to balanced budgets.”

“I think you will find that when you review the estimates, that they do reflect our commitment to sound fiscal management and the commitment to return to the balanced budget within the medium term,” Mr. Clement explained to reporters afterwards. “You will see that the estimates have decreased over the past four years so at this stage of the budgetary cycle, we are continuing to rein in spending. In fact, the estimates are down $4.9 billion from last year.”

But, with a budget still to be tabled, what importance should be attached to the estimates?

“Obviously, the budget is the main economic document of the government,” Mr. Clement clarified. “Having said that, the estimates is a signal of the direction of the government on some basic files and some basic portfolios so it is, I would call it a harbinger, perhaps, a signal of the kind of budget that we will have in 2013-2014.”

On Tuesday, a specific victory was identified and declared as Robert Goguen was sent up to note that, whatever the wild-eyed worries of the New Democrats, the main estimates showed “significant reductions” in prison spending. And lest anyone miss this point, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews followed up with a written statement sent out to reporters by his press secretary. “Last summer, we announced the closure of two prisons to save taxpayer dollars,” Mr. Toews was said to have said, “and yesterday in the Main Estimates, there were significant reductions in the cost of prisons.”

Unfortunately for Mr. Goguen and Mr. Toews, the estimates are apparently not to be taken too seriously. Or at least not quite as seriously as various members of the opposition are now taking them. At least so far as Mr. Clement is now concerned.

Again today, for the second consecutive afternoon, there was much fretting about various reductions.

“Mr. Speaker, the Conservatives’ planned cuts will make travellers less safe in the air, on the water, or riding the rails,” Olivia Chow declared. “The minister has repeatedly ignored recommendations from the Transportation Safety Board. He just will not implement its recommendations. Conservatives are cutting Transport Canada’s budget by almost 30%. Canadians are travelling more than ever, so how can the minister possibly justify these drastic cuts to transportation safety?”

The Transport Minister attempted to reassure her. “Mr. Speaker, we maintain our core function and we have not cut any frontline safety inspectors,” Denis Lebel explained.

Moving on, Malcolm Allen raised concerns about food safety. “Mr. Speaker, making up stories does not change the facts. Conservatives have cut service to Canadians. Where did they increase the spending? In the Senate, of course,” he huffed. “However, in the spending plans the Conservatives tabled yesterday we learned of more cuts to food safety. This is the same government that brought us the largest meat recall in Canadian history. Reduced meat inspections, ignored compliance orders and increased self-regulation. Why are they gambling with Canadians’ health and why are these reckless cuts coming to Canada’s food safety system?”

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz was entirely dismissive. Not merely of Mr. Allen’s conclusions, but also of the basis for his premise. “Mr. Speaker, absolutely none of that diatribe is true,” he lamented. “It is well known that the main estimates do not include departments’ total budgets for the year. That is why they are called estimates. The member opposite should know that. There are supplementary estimates throughout the year that continue to build the capacity for CFIA and other departments to do the job that Canadians require of them.”

Apparently unwilling to take Mr. Ritz’s word for it, The NDP’s Peggy Nash pressed on. What of cuts to infrastructure funding and VIA Rail? Why more money for advertising—or the “Ministry of Propaganda,” as Ms. Nash put it? “Are the estimates,” she asked, “a foretaste of what will be in the next budget?”

Forty-eight hours earlier, Mr. Clement had used the word “harbinger” to describe the estimates. And a “harbinger” is something like a “forerunner,” which is a word similar in meaning to “foretaste.” But now Mr. Clement was apparently more concerned that Ms. Nash might be worrying unnecessarily.

“Mr. Speaker, as my honourable colleague, the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food, has already indicated and as the honourable members should know and do know, the estimates are not the budget,” he patronized. “The estimates are a baseline that is used for planning purposes.”

Merely a baseline. So maybe the spending on prisons will go down. Maybe it will go up. Who is to say really? Certainly not anyone just yet, apparently. (Indeed, there’s still the budget and the public accounts and the supplementary estimates and departmental performance reports to come. Somewhere within those documents will hopefully be something definitive about the state of prison spending. So long as someone has the time and the wherewithal to find it.)

“The budget is the budget,” Mr. Clement explained, next attempting to conclude on a more rousing note, “and of course we will continue to fulfill our responsibilities when it comes to health and safety and the core programs of the federal government. We will continue to build jobs, opportunity and economic prosperity for our country. That is what the budget is about and we will continue to stand with Canadians.”

So never mind. At least for now. The government will get round to explaining itself soon enough. Understand only that the government is committed to “finding savings and returning to balanced budgets” and continuing to “stand with Canadians” How precisely it will go about this saving and returning and standing will be revealed in the fullness of time. Presumably. Maybe. Or at the very least if Kevin Page wins his court case.

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