It’s worthwhile sometimes to stop and see how others look at us: inside the country, we might have vastly different views about where our federal government is taking us. So a concise view from the outside is probably not a bad thing.
The view in the Feb. 15 issue of The Economist is certainly worth thinking about. The magazine, often seen as a thorough, albeit slightly right-of-centre publication, had some interesting views on Canada’s current budgetary policy.
The headline? “Something doesn’t add up. The process for approving the budget is broken.”
The article argues that changes to Canada’s budgetary policy mean it’s hard to tell what the federal government is actually doing with taxpayers’ money, because the budget uses one set of figures while the federal estimates, released months later, use a different method. “As a result, some of the figures (Finance Minister Jim) Flaherty mentioned in his budget speech will appear as different amounts in the spending estimates. Some will not appear at all,” the magazine notes. “A reconcilation of the two sets of figures no longer appears.”
The budget debate? Well, the term “political theatre” might be most apt.
Here’s The Economist’s take. The show is one thing, with government politicians and the opposition playing their well-worn, back-and-forth parts.
The debate doesn’t end up meaning much, the magazine points out.
“So much for appearances. Like most finance ministers in parliamentary democracies, Mr. Flaherty knows the Conservative majority in the House of Commons will approve his revenue and spending plans even if they don’t understand them. But Canada’s budget process is designed to hamper rigorous scrutiny.”
The article goes on to point out that significant changes — some of which strengthen the hold of Prime Minister’s Office while weakening parliamentary oversight — have been tucked into massive omnibus budget bills.
“Few people noticed in time in 2007 when the government took away Parliament’s power to authorize borrowing and gave it to cabinet — because the move was buried in an omnibus bill,” The Economist says. “The second of two omnibus bills in 2013 contained changes to the way Supreme Court justices are selected, an inclusion some thought was illegal because it was not mentioned in the budget and had no fiscal impact.”
Overall, though, the most damning lines in the article are the first and the last.
“Central to the sovereignty of Parliament is that it, not the executive, should ultimately control the public purse.”
“So much for sovereignty.”
You might say, who cares what someone from away thinks?
Well, consider this: The Economist doesn’t have a vested interest in Canadian budgetary policy or politics.
But it can certainly tell when something walks like a duck, talks like a duck, and makes a practice of ducking public scrutiny.