The Conservative minister in charge of federal spending restraint is distancing himself from his own department's edict that details of what gets cut be kept secret for months after the 2012 budget is released.
Treasury Board President Tony Clement said that, after reading about the memo on The Globe and Mail's website Thursday, he was investigating why it had been issued to all federal departments. The memo states that in contrast to a previous order, departments should not include details of how they will implement the spending cuts when they report on future plans and priorities in May.
"What I can assure you is, first of all, that memo didn't come from me," said Mr. Clement. "Secondly, my position is that we have an obligation to provide Parliament with timely and accurate information."
The minister has recently delivered several speeches on the importance of "open government" and financial transparency. He acknowledged that message would be at odds with a clampdown on information about spending cuts.
"If that were the case, I would be crushed by the irony. But that is not the case," he said.
The chief financial officers of all federal departments and agencies received a memo Tuesday from a senior official at Treasury Board, informing them plans have changed as to how the public will be told about spending cuts.
"Please note that departments and agencies are not to report the results of the strategic operating review as outlined in Budget 2012 in their 2012-13 [Report on Plans and Priorities]" states the memo from David Enns, deputy assistant secretary for expenditure management at Treasury Board.
The federal budget – which must be released before the end of March – is expected to confirm the government's plans to cut at least $4-billion a year in program spending. However further details of those cuts were originally going to come in May when every department publishes a "Report on Plans and Priorities," or RPP.
The memo, titled "Information Notice – Deficit Reduction Action Plan Update," is described as a follow up to an earlier directive sent on Nov. 18, 2011. That earlier note specifically said details on budget cuts would be included in the May reports on plans and priorities.
It is still possible that the government could decide to publish detailed spending cuts in the budget document itself. The memo is from Treasury Board – which may not be privy to the latest plans for the budget that is taking shape inside Finance Canada. However in recent years when budgets included smaller restraint exercises, the Conservative government only outlined total spending cuts for affected departments. The details came out later in departmental reports such as the RPPs.
Opposition finance critic Peter Julian said the NDP will push to have the cuts explained clearly. "The numbers shouldn't be hidden from the public," he said after a meeting with Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.
The change in reporting from Treasury Board comes as MPs on the government operations committee are launching a full review this week on the way federal departments report spending to Parliament. The review is expected to take several months.
Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page says the Treasury Board memo suggests the government is "undermining" the work of MPs by not giving them the information they need to make informed votes on departmental spending.
"Are we giving Parliament what they need? It doesn't sound like they are based on this latest circular," Mr. Page said. "This is not good. It is not how the system is supposed to work."
Liberal MP John McCallum, who worked on similar restraint exercises in cabinet when the Grits were in government, hopes the Conservatives will put the spending-cut details in the budget. However he said the memo suggests that is unlikely to happen.
The MP speculates there are two possible reasons for the memo. One is the government may have decided the political damage of being secretive is less than the political damage of releasing the cuts.
"Or else the exercise has gone off the rails and they haven't completed it," Mr. McCallum said. "I think the key question is, are they unwilling, or are they unable to release the information? I don't know which is worse, but both are bad."