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Roy Green: What concerns the parliamentary budget officer should concern us all

Parliamentary Budget Officer Yves Giroux waits to appear before the Commons Finance committee on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Tuesday, March 10, 2020.
Parliamentary Budget Officer Yves Giroux waits to appear before the Commons Finance committee on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Tuesday, March 10, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Yves Giroux is Canada’s parliamentary budget officer. The office is non-partisan and fulfills the role of federal government watchdog. And the watchdog is concerned.

In an interview with me last weekend, Giroux shared that he remains unaware what the Trudeau “government plans on doing,” whether that means a “reducing of the federal deficit to a more sustainable level, whether it aims to balance the budget within a certain time horizon, or whether the government is relatively comfortable with a high level of spending and deficit for a few additional years.”

The PBO underscored the need for information from the minister of finance. “I am really looking forward to the fiscal update the minister of finance has promised for this fall and it’s running out of time for the fall because, as you know, the fall ends slightly before Christmas.”

Giroux expressed concern about the Trudeau government’s decision to spend in secret. “The government asked Parliament for extraordinary spending powers and borrowing powers when the pandemic struck in March.”

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Several pieces of legislation at that time (C-13, 14 and 15), indeed, conveyed that right on the federal government, as well as the creation of complementary programs and policies.

The commitment by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was that there would be transparency. The federal government would inform the Canadian people of how it was putting these extraordinary powers to use and where and how the money, in the many multiples of billions of dollars, was being accounted for.

Giroux continued that Ottawa was doing so until the House was prorogued in mid-August, as the government provided the parliamentary finance committee and by extension all Canadians with a bi-weekly update on its spending and borrowing on initiatives. The most significant of these was the Canada Emergency Response Benefit program.

Read more: PBO calls out feds for not providing information on billions in planned spending

Without delving too deeply into the rationale for proroguing Parliament and the shutting down of the finance committee, as well as its ethics counterpart, thereby stunting investigations into the Trudeau/WE Charity relationship, it would have been expected that on Parliament’s emergence from proroguing, the government might have resumed its spending and borrowing reports.

Not so. This has “unfortunately not materialized,” declared the PBO. “Parliamentarians without these bi-weekly reports have no clear idea as to how much has been spent.”

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Clearly, the federal government appears to have no intent to update Canadians on how billions of dollars are spent on a weekly basis and so we most likely must wait until the year-ending fiscal statement.

Should the pandemic worsen or other fiscal headwinds arise, how might the Trudeau government be able to address such situations? According to Giroux, because of the absence of hard numbers, this is where assumptions must come into play.

Ottawa would “have some wiggle-room” for COVID-19-related temporary programs, “if they are indeed temporary” to the tune of approximately $19 billion, “assuming there is no significant new spending and that there are no major changes to policies and programs once we return to pre-pandemic levels.”

“That’s a far-fetched assumption because we know full well governments have plans and priorities and they like to implement them,” the PBO warns.

Click to play video 'Parliamentary budget officer says Canada’s deficit ‘unsustainable’' Parliamentary budget officer says Canada’s deficit ‘unsustainable’
Parliamentary budget officer says Canada’s deficit ‘unsustainable’ – Sep 7, 2020

I asked Giroux how badly we need a true fiscal accounting from this federal government.

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“Well,” he replied, “it depends to what extent you or we are willing to blindly trust the government to do what’s best for us.

“So if you have no concerns whatsoever about people you don’t know handling billions of dollars and sending you the bill, then you can sleep soundly at night. But I’m a bit more skeptical than that.”

The parliamentary budget officer concluded with this: “I think we should all be concerned when there is a lack of transparency because people who have nothing to hide don’t tend to balk at the thought of being accountable.”

Amen.

Roy Green is the host of the Roy Green Show on the Global News Radio network.

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