OTTAWA – Parliament’s independent budget officer is accusing the federal government of “total obfuscation” on the financial hit provinces will take from new criminal justice measures.
Kevin Page says a two-page cost summary released Thursday by Public Safety Minister Vic Toews doesn’t serve the needs of parliamentarians or the Canadian public.
The Conservatives say their massive new crime bill, which includes nine separate pieces of legislation, will cost $78.5 million over five years, part of bigger justice agenda the government says will cost $2.7 billion.
But Page, who has been asked by the Opposition parties to cost out the bill by mid-November, told The Canadian Press the government estimate includes no methodology, no supporting information and no provincial costs.
Nor can Page find the $2.7 billion expenditure listed in any federal budget of the past two years.
“We just need so much more. It’s disappointing. Parliament needs more. I think Canadians need more,” said Page, who was appointed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2008.
“I don’t have a policy bias one way or the other where they want to do this. I look at it strictly from the point of view of a budget officer. This is a lack of transparency yet we’re asking people to vote on a bill.”
Toews and Justice Minister Rob Nicholson testified Thursday morning to the Commons committee studying bill C-10, which the government has dubbed the Safe Streets and Communities Act.
Nicholson urged the Conservative-dominated panel to speed the legislation through the committee process, where amendments and corrections to flawed legislation are theoretically possible.
“We are taking action to protect families, stand up for victims and hold individuals accountable,” said Nicholson.
At the end of the hour-long hearing, the Conservative ministers promised to provide documentation on the cost of the legislation over five years.
What emerged later in the day set off alarms in the Parliamentary Budget Office.
“There is actually no information to support the estimates in the press release today,” said Page.
“Where else can you imagine yourself going to a bank and saying ‘I want $2.7 billion and here’s one piece of paper. Can I have my money now?'”
Page had already agreed to a request by both the official Opposition NDP and the Liberals to try to cost out the omnibus crime bill by mid-November.
It’s similar to an exercise he undertook last year on another “tough on crime” bill that eliminated two-for-one sentencing provisions for convicts who had spent extended periods in jail awaiting trial.
Government stone-walling at the time led to the contempt of Parliament vote that helped bring down Harper’s minority government last spring.
The Conservatives promised on the campaign trail to repackage all the crime legislation in a single bill and pass it within 100 parliamentary sitting days. Their majority mandate has emboldened the government to swiftly fulfil that promise.
Toews was making no apologies for his government’s light accounting work Thursday, telling CBC the cost totals came from his officials and “you won’t get any better figures than that.”
Toews also took a direct shot at Page, citing past projections by the parliamentary budget office that went awry.
“If he disagrees with us, it appears he has about a 50-50 chance of being right,” said Toews.
But Page isn’t directly disputing the government’s projections, at least not at this point. He said he’s objecting to the complete lack of transparency and justification for how the government arrived at its estimate.