Changes could enable feds to spend $7B in budgeted money on other things: PBO

Changes could enable feds to spend $7B in budgeted money on other things: PBO
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OTTAWA — A new report says the Trudeau government’s efforts to streamline the budgeting process means $7 billion in new spending commitments from its recent budget would be subject to far less parliamentary scrutiny — and could technically be spent on something other than the promised measures.

The warning Tuesday by the federal budget watchdog focused on the wording of the government’s proposed changes to better align Ottawa’s budgetary spending plan with the main estimates document. The main estimates are one of the mechanisms that actually give departments and agencies the authority to spend public funds.

The Liberals have introduced changes as they try to fulfil their 2015 election promise to improve Parliament’s financial processes by bringing more consistency and clarity when it comes to government accounting of how it spends public money.

But the parliamentary budget office said the Liberals’ efforts to speed up the implementation of budget measures will come at a cost. The change, it argued, will result in incomplete information and weaker legal powers for parliamentarians who, under the old system, have better control over where the money will flow and how it will be spent.

“It will help the government in being able to fund its measures faster this way because they get the (spending) authority ahead of time — but it reduces the scrutiny and control of Parliament,” deputy parliamentary budget officer Mostafa Askari said of the changes.

Askari added that the government could follow the detailed spending table presented in its February budget. However, he said there’s nothing in the wording of the new law that would compel the government to spend according to its budget plan.

Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre has attacked the government over its legislation to streamline the accounting process, arguing it lacks legal enforceability on how Ottawa spends “this $7 billion no-strings-attached Liberal slush fund.”

“Governments can only spend what Parliament has approved and only on the specific purposes approved, except this slush fund will allow the Liberals to move the money wherever they want,” Poilievre said recently during question period.

“How is that accountable to taxpayers?”

Treasury Board President Scott Brison has rejected Poilievre’s accusations. He’s said the measures are laid out in the budget, line by line and with detailed descriptions, on how the money will be spent.

A spokesman for Brison insisted Tuesday that, by law, the funds must be allocated to specific budget measures.

“Treasury Board will not have any discretion to use the funds for any other purpose, as this would be an unauthorized use of public funds,” Farees Nathoo wrote in an email.

He argued that the Liberal government has already improved transparency and accountability by including an item-by-item table in the budget.

“We are showing Parliament exactly where in the budget the funding for the new budget implementation vote comes from and how it will be used,” Nathoo said.

“Parliamentarians can now literally follow the money from this new central vote to a specific line in the budget and the main estimates.”

Follow @AndyBlatchford on Twitter

Andy Blatchford, The Canadian Press

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