Without a safety net: Canadians still in dark about budget cuts, says parliamentary watchdog
TheStar.com – News/Canada – Conservative promises of open government long forgotten, Critics say.
Dec 10 2013. By: Les Whittington Ottawa Bureau reporter
OTTAWA—Canada’s budget watchdog, created by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2006, has taken to filing $5-dollar-a-pop Access to Information requests as a last-ditch way to try to find out how Conservative budget cuts will impact the public.
That Parliamentary Budget Officer Jean-Denis Fréchette has been reduced to filing such requests like any citizen in hopes of getting details on the government’s own plans is seen as a telling symbol of the cloak of the secrecy thrown up by the Conservatives during nearly eight years in power in Ottawa.
Overall, say the government’s opponents, the Conservatives’ promise to bring a new day of openness and accountability to Ottawa has been forgotten in what they say is a heavy-handed rush to remake Canada in the Conservative image.
“This is a very challenged democracy under this government,” said NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus.
Using Access requests, which can be sent in by any private citizen, was a strategy adopted by former PBO Kevin Page, who jousted for months with federal government officials over his demands for information on spending reductions in the 2012 austerity budget.
“The idea for a parliamentary budget office came when the Conservatives were an opposition party,” Page said in an interview. It was a “noble idea” to set up an independent body to make government spending more accountable. “Obviously, everything changed when they took power.”
Despite challenging the government in court and launching numerous appeals to department heads, the PBO still lacks the data needed to find out how $5 billion in annual spending reductions will actually be implemented and whether services and programs used by Canadians will be reduced or eliminated, Fréchette told the Star.
He said he is trying to convince Parliamentary authorities to force federal departments to end the current “impasse” over supplying full details on spending cuts from the 2012 budget. But he may have to go back to court to try to get the information, Fréchette said.
Treasury Board president Tony Clement says “the government continues to provide the PBO with data that falls within its mandate” through regular reports to Parliament, according to a spokesperson.
But Page says MPs are deliberately being denied information they need to fulfill their duty to scrutinize the use of taxpayers’ money. “The prime minister effectively rigs the game so the power of the purse rests with the cabinet and the PM, as opposed to the House of Commons where it belongs,” says Page, who is now setting up an institute for public finance studies at the University of Ottawa.
“The votes by this Parliament on any budget bill are like pinning the tail on the donkey,” said Toronto Liberal MP John McKay. “We vote blind,” he remarked, adding that the government’s 2012 budget was passed in the Commons before MPs had full details of the eventual impact of the sweeping changes in the legislation.
Critics point to the regular use of the Conservative majority to limit debate in the Commons, the shortcomings of the Access to Information (ATI) process, the rigid control of government communications, muffling of contrary views from officials and unprecedented efforts to ram through wide-ranging legislation in single, massive budget bills.
“They’re turning the House of Commons into a rubber stamp for whatever the Prime Minister’s Office comes up with,” the NDP’s Angus told the Star. He said the government “suppresses information, fires whistleblowers” and uses omnibus budget legislation to pass “all manner of legislation that dramatically alters the landscape of our country.
Suzanne Legault, the information commissioner of Canada, said in her latest annual report that the “integrity” of the ATI program is “at serious risk” because of a lack of government resources and delays in responding to requests.
Duff Conacher, a director of Democracy Watch, says, “Right now, it’s not an Access to Information Act, it’s a guide to keeping-information-secret act.”
Secrecy in Ottawa is “worse than at any time in the last 25 years,” he said.
But Jason MacDonald, a spokesperson for Harper, dismissed criticism of the government’s handling of the ATI program. He said in 2012 the federal government “processed a record number of requests, released a record number of materials and have turned information requests around in record time.
“In short, Canadians have more, and better, access to their government than before,” MacDonald said.
The Conservative agenda has caught many Canadians off guard. On the campaign trail in 2011, Harper never told voters he was going to raise the age of eligibility for Old Age Security in the future or tighten up requirements for jobless workers to hold onto their Employment Insurance benefits. And there was no hint that a Conservative majority would overhaul environmental protection regulations in a way that many said was nothing less than an attack on the green movement.
Equally surprised were provincial finance ministers who met with Flaherty in late 2011 on Ottawa’s future health care funding for the provinces. With little discussion, Flaherty unveiled a 10-year plan to reduce the increases in health care transfers after 2016—a scheme that Ontario said would download $21 billion onto its health costs. Provincial ministers were surprised as well this spring when the Conservatives unexpectedly proposed a job-training plan that would shave $300 million from federal transfers that the provinces currently receive from Ottawa to provide training for the unemployed.
And Harper initialed a free-trade pact with Europe — a sweeping deal with little-understood potential impacts in Canada — with almost no advance public information or debate on what was being negotiated.
Harper’s Conservatives have often been accused of trying to stifle public discourse or suppress dissent through their allocation of federal funds, which have been reduced or cut altogether for groups that include advocacy in their activities.
Richard Elliott, executive director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, said in 2012 his group saw its federal support drop by $450,000 because the government said the educational and rights promotional activities proposed for funding “might produce something that could be used for advocacy.”
It doesn’t make sense to reject a funding proposal because “it might be used somewhere, sometime for advocacy,” he said. Perhaps it was because the government disagrees with his group’s views on such issues as criminalization of sex workers, prison health services and discrimination against immigrants with HIV/AIDS, Elliott suggested.
Dayna Scott, executive director of another group that was defunded — the National Network on Environments and Women’s Health — said, “You do get the sense that in some ways this current government is not interested in supporting knowledge generation or research that could discredit or draw into question the direction of its policy agenda.”
Also, federal government scientists and researchers have felt they are up against a kind of knowledge Iron Curtain under the current government.
A recent study by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada concluded the vast majority of federal scientists said they would face repercussions if they spoke out against a political decision with potential environmental or public dangers.
Despite Harper’s 2007 whistleblower law meant to protect government officials from reprisals for exposing government wrongdoing, the government has repeatedly taken aim at officials who raised red flags.
Public critics were fired, quit, endured efforts to impugn their credibility, or saw their appointments not renewed in the midst controversial disagreements with the Harper cabinet. Among them were:
- Former Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission president Linda Keen;
- Former Statistics Canada head Munir Sheikh;
- Ex-veterans ombudsman Pat Strogan;
- Diplomat Richard Colvin;
- Paul Kennedy, former chair of the RCMP complaints commission.
Most recently, Sylvie Therrien, a federal government investigator, was fired for revealing that Employment Insurance investigators were required to meet monthly quotas of total clawed-back EI benefits.
While dissenting voices have been discouraged, the government has showered Canadians with positive advertising on its Economic Action Plan budgets, commemoration of the War of 1812, boutique tax cuts and other measures.
The ads on television, radio, newspapers and the Internet have cost Ottawa more than $600 million since the Conservatives were elected and are an abuse of power, according to Liberal MP David McGuinty. He has proposed a private member’s bill to establish independent vetting of such advertising spots to see if they cross the line into partisan political promotion, as is done in the Ontario government.
But the government has routinely brushed aside criticism of its advertising blitzes, saying Ottawa has an obligation to inform Canadians about the services and programs available to them.
Asked about accusations of government secrecy, MacDonald, the PM’s spokesperson, said the Conservatives have “taken steps to make government more open, more transparent and more accountable to Canadians.”
For example, he said, “More backbench MPs have passed bills into law through this majority Conservative Parliament than under any parliament since 1972, and we still have half of our term left. Since 2011, a record 19 private members’ bills have been passed,” he said.
MacDonald also said Harper is the first prime minister to invite MPs from all parties to play a role in public hearings to vet Supreme Court of Canada appointees.
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