Budget: (noun) An estimate of income and expenditure for a set period of time.
Say you’re a parliamentary budget officer.
Your mandate should be pretty straightforward. You’d expect to be overseeing federal income and expenditure. But not just numbers in a vacuum. As the title suggests, you’d be looking at those numbers in context, based on estimates over a set period of time.
In fact, here’s how the mandate of the office is spelled out on the government website:
“The mandate of the parliamentary budget officer is to provide independent analysis to Parliament on the state of the nation’s finances, the government’s estimates and trends in the Canadian economy; and upon request from a committee or parliamentarian, to estimate the financial cost of any proposal for matters over which Parliament has jurisdiction.”
Now, if you heard federal Treasury Board president Tony Clement talking on CBC Radio Saturday morning, you might be a little confused. Because Clement says the parliamentary budget officer, Kevin Page, is acting outside his mandate by looking for information on continuing cuts to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA).
“I’m making the argument that he’s outside his mandate,” Clement told CBC’s “The House.”
“There’s lots of work for him to do inside his mandate and he should stick to that.”
Why is he outside his mandate?
Well, says Clement, it’s because Page is trying to investigate “what we’re not spending money on.”
That’s a neat trick. Cuts to services mean money is no longer being spent in those areas. No expenditures exist, therefore the budget officer has nothing to explore. No expenditures to look at here. Just move along.
Except that budgets are about finances over time. Not snapshots in time.
The absurdity of Clement’s comments become obvious if you look at the other side of the ledger. The government may be planning to buy expensive F-35 fighter jets, but the money hasn’t been spent yet. Therefore, the budget officer has no mandate to look at it.
Yeah, it’s silly all right. Of course, Page did run into roadblocks trying to investigate that file, as well.
It could all be a case of the Conservatives trying to undermine archaic offices and procedures, except for one niggling detail: Page’s post was created by the Conservatives in 2006, as part of their prized accountability measures.
So, in essence, this is a government that will undermine its own motherhood achievements in order to keep its affairs behind closed doors.
Page said he will go to court, as early as today, to argue his right to examine these numbers. Since the weekend standoff, however, he says the federal departments seem to be showing signs of co-operating.
Perhaps the optics of constantly battling one of their own accountability chiefs is finally sinking in.