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Tories resist giving details on internal budget freezes, watchdog says

Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page takes questions at a technical briefing in Ottawa on Feb. 18, 2010.

Pawel Dwulit/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Conservative government's deficit-fighting plan simply doesn't add up, and the next federal budget must finally spell out where the knife will fall, Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page says.

In one of two new reports released online on Thursday, Mr. Page's Parliamentary Budget Office notes that it has been running into stiff resistance in its quest for details on the government's five-year plan to save $6.8-billion through internal budget freezes.

Mr. Page has been denied some material on the grounds that it is covered by cabinet confidentiality. He has also expressed concern that Parliament recently voted for 51 reductions in departmental spending without any clear explanation from government about the effects of the cuts.

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After the release of the reports, Mr. Page said it's not good enough for ministers to say they will find savings through attrition without explaining which jobs will be left vacant.

"This whole issue of it being a cabinet confidence, to me, it's a huge fallacy," he said. "What does this mean for food inspection? What does this mean for search and rescue? What does this mean for processing employment insurance cheques or Old Age Security cheques?"

Mr. Page said Members of Parliament deserve answers to the questions they've been asking in committees since the broad cuts were first announced last year.

For the report, the PBO asked 10 large departments, representing 160,000 public servants, to provide their staffing plans.

Two of the 10 refused. They are Correctional Services Canada, which is bucking the restraint trend with plans to hire more than 4,000 new full-time staff, and the RCMP, which the Parliamentary Budget Office says has not explained a planned reduction of 1,143 employees.

The report states that only one of the 10, Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, provided a clear plan for managing services while cutting back.

Combined, the 10 selected departments are planning reductions of only about 1,000 full-time staff over the medium term.

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"Over all, there is limited evidence that current plans will meet the President of Treasury Board's public service attrition target (i.e. 11,000 full-time positions per annum)," the PBO says.

Treasury Board President Stockwell Day has said the detailed effects of these and other restraint measures will be outlined in the 2011 budget, which is why they remain a matter of cabinet confidentiality until then.

"We have a clear plan to balance the budget," Mr. Day said on Thursday in a statement. "Retirements and attrition are just one part of our plan."

In the second report, the PBO compared its analysis of the Department of Finance's budget projections with those of the International Monetary Fund's latest report on Canada released in December.

The PBO's view of the federal books - which includes the long-held opinion that Canada has a structural (or permanent) deficit and will not meet its 2015 target for erasing the deficit - is frequently quoted by opposition parties.

In contrast, federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty has frequently challenged the credibility of the PBO's work and prefers to quote from the IMF reports, which are more flattering in some areas. Mr. Page's second report is clearly an attempt to rebut the minister's criticisms.

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Mr. Page notes that the IMF echoes the budget office's two main concerns. The IMF is also predicting a deficit for Canada in 2015-2016, the year Mr. Flaherty says Ottawa will return to balance. The PBO notes that the IMF also reports a structural deficit for Canada in 2014-15 of $4.9-billion.

A spokesman for Mr. Flaherty stressed the IMF's positive findings.

"Kevin Page should read the IMF report," said spokesman Chisholm Pothier in an e-mail. "The IMF was clear - they supported our government's plan to return to balance as both 'credible' and 'appropriate.'"

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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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