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Plenty of targets in Tories' deficit-fighting plan, but details are few

Treasury Board President Tony Clement speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on June 13, 2011.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Conservative government is keeping much of its deficit-fighting plan under wraps, even as details trickle out as to where the knife will fall.

Three months after the 2011 budget first stated that 12 federal organizations will cut a combined $2.6-billion over three years, many of them told The Globe and Mail they need more time before they can explain the details publicly.

On Monday, Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page reported he's still waiting for answers as to how the government is implementing a spending freeze first announced in the 2010 budget - 15 months ago. He reported that while recent government documents show more than 6,000 positions will be eliminated over three years, that covers only about one-third of the promised spending cuts.

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"Where is the plan? We haven't seen it," said Mr. Page in an interview.

The government is making much of its new pledge to find $4-billion in annual savings this year through a process called the "strategic and operating review," led by Treasury Board President Tony Clement.

Mr. Clement said the government believes in the effectiveness of this approach. He backed away from the idea of hiking government user fees as part of the deficit fight, an idea he raised in a speech last week.

Among the cuts that are trickling out, The Globe has learned that Infrastructure Canada - one of the 12 organizations that posted savings in the 2011 budget - is cutting $45-million from a program to build environmentally friendly infrastructure projects.

Launched in 2009, the $1-billion Green Infrastructure Fund promised to spread money over five years for large, environmentally friendly infrastructure construction. Projects that have already been approved - including a new hydroelectric power dam in Yukon and projects converting landfill gas in Quebec into energy - will not be affected.‬

‪The cut is drawing concern from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, which has long lobbied Ottawa to pledge billions in new cash toward Canada's infrastructure needs.‬

‪"It's absolutely essential that we protect the core investments that exist and that funding that has been put in place in fact isn't reduced," said FCM president Berry Vrbanovic.‬

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Of the 12 organizations, Fisheries and Oceans has been the most forthcoming, outlining plans to move away from annual fishing quotas for all fisheries.‬ However, several large departments among the 12 aren't talking.

‪For Instance, Public Works claims in the 2011 budget that it found $172.2-million in cuts for this year and the next two, yet a department spokesman said he could not outline these cuts.

‪‪Of the 12 organizations, the most politically sensitive cuts for the Conservatives are likely to be the details emerging from National Defence. The 2011 budget says the department's strategic review found more than $1.5-billion in cuts over the next two years.‬

‪In the Monday report, the PBO analyzed recently released reports from departments on the planned spending for programs and staff. It found National Defence and the RCMP top the list for planned job cuts over the next three years, while the Correctional Service and the Canada Revenue Agency plan the most hires.

While opposition MPs line up in Question Period to express concern about cutbacks, one Conservative MP says there's a need for Conservatives to argue the other side. Alberta MP Brent Rathgeber delivered what he called his "Tea Party" speech in the House Monday pushing the government for a strong focus on cost-cutting.

"I think there is a role for the private member to remind the government that taxpayers are increasingly, in my view, demanding fiscal responsibility," he said in an interview. "The Tea Party movement in the States advocates for less government, more individual accountability, lower taxes and reductions in government spending and I think I hit all of those themes."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

A member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery since 1999, Bill Curry worked for The Hill Times and the National Post prior to joining The Globe in Feb. 2005. Originally from North Bay, Ont., Bill reports on a wide range of topics on Parliament Hill, with a focus on finance. More

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