The Flaherty era in budgeting

Omnibus legislation, the parliamentary budget officer and the Economic Action Plan

Last night, I asked Kevin Page, the first parliamentary budget officer whose work was criticized by Jim Flaherty, if he had anything to say about Mr. Flaherty’s resignation. Here is what he sent along.

I wish Minister Flaherty and his family the very best.

I thank him for his service. He worked tirelessly for his country in one of the most difficult portfolios during a global financial crisis. He deserves appreciation and thanks from all Canadians.

On a more humorous note, I thank him for giving the Parliamentary Budget Office a chance to shine. If his Department of Finance provided better projections and more transparent analysis, it would have been more difficult to launch a legislative budget office.

Eight years ago now, Mr. Flaherty stood in the House of Commons and delivered his first budget speech. It included note of the new office that would be established to scrutinize the government’s math.

We are committing the funds necessary to establish a parliamentary budget office. This new office will ensure Canadians can get honest and straightforward information on the state of our finances from an independent source.

That office’s creation and the government’s subsequent clashes with that office can’t be entirely put on Mr. Flaherty (the PBO was created by the Accountability Act), but the presence of the parliamentary budget officer was an important, and perhaps lasting, part of this era in budgeting. And you might add a few other features of the last nine years—none of which could be solely pinned on the finance minister, but all of which should be part of the discussion.

At last report, the PBO’s standoff with the government over budget cuts persists (last year the Defence Department refused a PBO request and the PBO reported this year that nearly half of its requests had been entirely or partially refused).

Though the issue predates the current government, reform of the estimates process (and the general ability of Parliament to hold the government to account) remains a point of concern.

The Economic Action Plan™ was born in January 2009, ostensibly as the name given to the stimulus included in the 2009 budget, but ultimately as a multi-year, multi-million-dollar ad campaign and rebranding of the annual budget. (Note Table 4.1.2 in the last budget, in which 2010 and 2011 are said to have had budgets, but 2012, 2013 and 2014 are said to have had economic action plans. Mind you, Budget 2010 included “Economic Action Plan: Year 2.” And Budget 2011 was the “Next Phase of Canada’s Economic Action Plan.”)

And once or twice each year there were budget implementation bills that numbered hundred of pages, a practice that became a point of particular consternation in 2012 with C-38, a bill which put “omnibus” alongside “prorogation” in the lexicon of controversial terminology (“time allocation” would be added later). Amending the Supreme Court Act via last fall’s budget implementation bill was a particularly artful touch.

Jim Flaherty’s legacy will probably be more closely associated with the policies he signed his name to, but the greater context is the budget as a parliamentary and public gesture and the practice and politics which now surround it—the basis for a grand branding exercise with serious questions about actual implementation and accountability.

The Conservative government should always get credit for creating the office of the parliamentary budget officer, but the office’s future is still basically an open question that depends on what, if anything, results from the experience of the last few years. The issue of government advertising already has a response in the form of a private member’s bill from Liberal MP David McGuinty.

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