The Conservative government is launching a major reform of the way MPs review and approve spending, with a new online database and changes that could allow MPs to cast more detailed votes on specific programs.
Treasury Board President Tony Clement will detail the changes Wednesday to a highly archaic and widely criticized accounting system. The announcement will come just hours after what is expected to be a lively closed-door Conservative caucus discussion on the independence of Tory backbenchers, another area in which MPs are pushing for more influence.
In recent years, the government has often been accused of taking a highly secretive approach to government spending. The last federal election was triggered after the House of Commons declared the then-minority Conservative government in contempt of Parliament for failing to produce spending information related to crime legislation and fighter jets. More recently, the Parliamentary Budget Officer challenged departments in Federal Court for refusing to provide details on spending cuts. The court dismissed that case Monday, claiming the PBO's arguments were "hypothetical."
Mr. Clement moved Monday to challenge his government's reputation for secrecy with the launch of a new interactive database. The website allows the public to easily track government spending, showing trends and government-wide totals for specific areas like personnel spending. The electronic database updates an earlier system, in which spending figures had to be searched one at a time through hundreds of pages of reports.
"It was like an archeological expedition, digging through numbers department by department. And we are moving from that to the digital age," Mr. Clement said Monday. "What this means is Canadians will now have a more complete picture."
In addition to Monday's launch of the website, Mr. Clement has also written a letter to MPs on the House of Commons government operations and estimates committee, agreeing with some of the committee's main recommendations made last year. Mr. Clement is scheduled to discuss the government's response at the committee on Wednesday.
NDP Treasury Board critic Mathieu Ravignat said the success of any changes can only be judged over time. "There are a number of positive signs," he said of Mr. Clement's letter, but added he is skeptical. "This government has shown time and time again that sensitive information is inaccessible … so we'll see."
Currently MPs approve spending by departments in broad categories. One of the main recommendations from all parties on the committee was that departments should approve spending based on the program, such as food safety or refugee protection.
In his letter, Mr. Clement said the government is open to that type of reform, but it could cost about $70-million over five years for departments to make the changes. The letter says it would cost less – about $45-million – to report spending based on broader "strategic outcomes."
In a statement, assistant parliamentary budget officer Sahir Khan said MPs would be better served with a focus on program spending, which he said "would provide a more direct, measurable link between financial resources and the performance of public programs."
Treasury Board President Tony Clement launched a new website Monday that makes it far easier for users to search and compare government spending trends.
Examples of what it shows now:
Government-wide spending on personnel grew from $37.1-billion in 2009-10 to $39.7-billion in 2011-12.
National Defence spending to buy machinery and equipment dropped from $3.5-billion in 2009-10 to $2.6-billion in 2011-12.
Canadian Heritage spending on sport, including support for Canadian athletes in international competition, declined from $232.7-million in 2009-10 to $213.2-million in 2011-12.
What it will show over time:
Over the next year, Treasury Board officials say spending will be added to include the 2012-13 fiscal year. The government is also promising to update the data each quarter, so that spending trends are more current.
The government is in the midst of a three-year spending restraint exercise that started with $1.5-billion in cuts for 2012-13 and will ramp up to $5.1-billion in permanent cuts for 2014-15. The government has not been clear as to how individual programs will be affected. The database would eventually make this information available.
- Bill Curry