Why no MP should vote for the budget

Elizabeth May

On second thought, this blog should be titled, “Why no self-respecting MP should vote for the budget.”

And it’s not because it’s a “do nothing budget,” as the approved NDP messaging has it.  Nor because it fails the middle class, as the Liberal messaging has it.  Not even because it has some good things and some bad things, breaking faith with federal civil service retirees and doing nothing on the climate crisis, as the Green Party press release attempted  to summarize the document.

It is because it is not a budget.

Here’s a pretty standard definition of a budget, as related to government spending:

A “budget” is a plan for the accomplishment of programs related to objectives and goals within a definite time period, including an estimate of resources required, together with an estimate of resources available, usually compared with one or more past periods and showing future requirements

(Smith, Robert W. and Thomas D. Lynch. (2004) Public Budgeting in America. 5th Edition. Pearson; Upper Saddle River, New Jersey. 37.)

Canadians likely assume that the federal budget is a great ledger sheet, with spending line items, and revenue line items and a reconciliation of revenues versus spending, accounting for liabilities and contingencies and so on.  Anyone who has ever run a co-op nursery school or sat on a Parish Council, or, for that matter set up a household budget to live within one’s means, would be entitled to assume that the federal budget sets out all this information, and more.

True, it used to.

And Parliamentary tradition says it must.  One of the foundational principles of our system of government, known as the Westminster Parliamentary tradition, is that Parliament controls the public purse.  Parliament does not run government, but Parliament is there to hold the government to account.  Each Parliamentarian has a responsibility to understand a budget before voting on it.

The fact that such a responsibility is now beyond us was made clear in an editorial from The Economist (February 15, 2014), “Canada’s budget: Something doesn’t add up.”

The editorial opened with this sentence, “Central to the sovereignty of parliament is that it, not the executive, should ultimately control the public purse.”

It ends with this: “So much for sovereignty.”

I have been complaining for years about the fact that the budget is no longer a budget.  Read it and search in vain for a statement of revenues and expenses.  Read it in vain to see the bottom line department by department, or the ability to compare with past years, or with the next three years coming.   They are not there.

What is there?  A long promotional brochure.  Okay, at 419 pages, it’s a very thick brochure.  Announcements here and there. X million over Y years for this or that shiny bauble.  Is that new money? Old money?  Cash or accrual?  For example, once Parks Canada gets $391.5 million over five years to repair roads and bridges inside national parks, crumbling due to previous budget cuts, is the total departmental budget increased or decreased?  With $108.2 million over three years for the burial fund for veterans, will the overall departmental budget grow by that amount, or is that cut from somewhere else?

Don’t ask so many questions.  Or, as my favourite Ring Lardner line had it, “‘Shut up,’ he explained.”

Actually, Stephen Harper doesn’t have to worry much.  Most questions in the House will play along and pretend this is a budget.

First and foremost, it is not a budget. It is a communications tool.

How did it come to this?  What became of the fundamental principle that Parliament controls the public purse?

Well, Stephen Harper fixed that in the 2007 omnibus bill when the ability to borrow was taken from Parliament and given to cabinet. The actual spending estimates come out later, in the main estimates and then the supplemental estimates, but you still cannot find out the impact of cuts.  That’s why the PBO, first under Page and now under Frechette, is going to court to get this basic information.

Credit to Stephen Harper for setting up the Parliamentary Budget Office, but, as most Canadians realize, it has been stymied.  Valiant first PBO, Kevin Page, tried to get information from the Conservative administration.  For his troubles he was subject to abuse.   The Economist quotes Page: “The system is broken.”

How do we fix it? Let’s start by pointing to the Emperor and shouting out that he is naked.  Those lovely, flowing, shiny robes of a budget are imaginary.