Liberals’ $7-billion ‘slush fund’ slammed by budget watchdog

Liberals’ $7-billion ‘slush fund’ slammed by budget watchdog
May 1, 2018 editorial-team
In Staff Picks

OTTAWA — The Parliamentary Budget Officer is criticizing the Liberals’ approach to funding this year’s budget, saying a new $7-billion fund will leave Parliament with “incomplete information and weaker spending controls.”

The criticism, in a report published Tuesday morning, comes amid opposition speculation that the government could spend the money willy-nilly instead of sticking to budget promises — making it a glorified “slush fund,” as Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilièvre recently told the National Post.

Liberals are asking Parliament to approve $7 billion for the Treasury Board in a single vote, as part of this year’s main estimates.

The votes, covering spending across the federal government for the financial year, were delayed by a few weeks to align spending with measures announced in the budget, according to the government. Measures adding up to $7 billion are listed in a one-page annex to the budget document. A spokesman for Treasury Board President Scott Brison said “this level of transparency is simply unprecedented,” and confirmed that an online spending tracker will be updated monthly.

It is rare for the government to lump so much spending into one vote but there is one memorable example. In 2009, the Conservative government announced a $3-billion “emergency fund” in response to the financial crisis, which the opposition worried was just a “slush fund.” It ultimately helped fund a notorious gazebo in Treasury Board President Tony Clement’s riding.

While acknowledging that the government said its intention is to “provide more coherent information to Parliamentarians,” the Parliamentary Budget Office report painted a bleaker picture of what it called a “novel” approach that ultimately removes power from the elected House.

Until now, Parliament would approve spending only after funding had been scrutinized and approved in the Treasury Board’s submission process. Not so with “Vote 40,” which would approve the $7 billion prior to such scrutiny and lessen Parliament’s legal controls over where money is spent, indicating to the PBO that “due diligence will no longer be performed on new budget spending measures before the government asks for Parliament’s assent.”

The report noted that there are often “significant differences” between money announced in the budget versus what the Treasury Board eventually presents to Parliament. For example, according to the office’s analysis, 31 per cent of the measures announced in the 2016 budget had “variation” compared to amounts initially outlined in the budget document.

“Ultimately, parliamentarians will need to judge whether the government’s most recent efforts to align the budget and the estimates results in an improvement in their oversight role, and if they are willing to accept incomplete information and weaker spending controls to help the government to expedite the implementation of budget measures,” it read.

Poilièvre had wondered whether the government’s promise only to spend the money on specific budget initiatives was legally-binding.

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