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Ottawa's true spending, and cuts, shrouded in a fog of bafflegab

Treasury Board President Tony Clement – Ottawa's equivalent of a chief operating officer – insists he's all about making Canada a model of open government.

Let's do a quick reality check. Say you want know how budget cuts are hitting Agriculture and Agri-food Canada. Basic stuff, right?

Not so fast. The March 29 federal budget says the department will spend $169-million less this year. Less than what? The answer isn't in the 498-page budget.

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For that, you have to consult the "main estimates," released every year on March 1. According the estimates, Agriculture and Agri-food will spend $2.4-billion in 2012-2013.

But that's pre-budget. And if you want to know what the department spent last year, that's in another document – the annual financial statements.

Last week, Mr. Clement's office released its annual "reports on plans and priorities," which converts the estimates into detailed spending plans for all 97 federal departments and agencies. Typically, these also reflect changes in the budget.

Not this year. Mr. Clement, the Prince of Darkness, specifically directed departments to exclude the budget cuts, even though they have been known for more than a month.

This latest report puts Agriculture and Agri-food's spending at $3-billion this year, not $2.4-billion. The numbers should be the same, but they're not.

Whoa! Is Ottawa spending $3-billion, $3-billion less the planned $169-million in savings, $2.4-billion minus the cuts, or some other figure?

Is the department shrinking or growing? Damned if anyone outside government knows. And that, in the bizarro world of federal accounting, just might be the intent.

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If Ottawa Inc. were a public company, regulators would probably delist its shares.

Federal financial reporting has become so murky, inconsistent and retrospective that no outsider has a clear picture of what is actually being spent, or cut. Multiple and overlapping reports are produced using different accounting methodologies. Money not spent in one year is quietly shifted into another, conveniently creating moveable baselines for advertised "cuts."

It isn't just about Agriculture and Agri-food's budget. It's F-35 fighter jets, employment insurance, and everything else Ottawa does. Nowhere are the budget's headline figures of $5.2-billion in savings and 19,200 job cuts properly documented.

Mr. Clement, taking a break recently from a conference on government openness in Brazil, acknowledged that Canadians will have to wait until next spring to find out what has actually been cut.

The system serves the government, which is eager to show that budget cuts won't affect Canadians. It also enables top bureaucrats to keep a veil around what they're spending.

The disturbing trend away from transparency, which predated Stephen Harper's Conservatives, hasn't gone unnoticed. Parliamentary budget watchdog Kevin Page bluntly pointed out in a report last month that the government isn't even giving MPs enough information to "fulfill their constitutional obligations" and that its reporting violates guidelines set by the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development.

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"Canada's budgetary reporting writ large is not adequately transparent – timely, comparable, reconciled – as defined by the OECD," the report concluded.

The way it works in Canada is that the government can't spend without Parliament's authority. Members of Parliament, who represent ordinary Canadians, need a clear and up-to-date picture of what is being spent. They're not getting it.

In a bid to provide some clarity. Mr. Page's office asked 91 departments and agencies to outline what impact the budget cuts will have on jobs, programs and services. Only eight bothered to respond.

And what about that mysterious $600-million jump in the Agriculture budget? Here's the convoluted official explanation: "Planned spending reflects funds already brought into the Department's reference levels as well as amounts to be authorized through the Estimates process as presented in the Annual Reference Level Update. It also includes funding approved in the government fiscal plan, but yet to be brought into the Department's reference levels."

Translation: We know a lot more than we're letting on, but we'll only share what we choose.

So much for openness, Mr. Clement.

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About the Author
National Business Correspondent

Barrie McKenna is correspondent and columnist in The Globe and Mail's Ottawa bureau. From 1997 until 2010, he covered Washington from The Globe's bureau in the U.S. capital. During his U.S. posting, he traveled widely, filing stories from more than 30 states. Mr. McKenna has also been a frequent visitor to Japan and South Korea on reporting assignments. More

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