The Backbencher; Taking all of the mindless psychobabble that comes out of the House of Commons, and providing critical analysis on the important bits.
Interventions are hard. Really, who wants to sit someone down and directly tell them that their behaviour is wrong and is hurting themselves and those around them? However, in the case of Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, it simply has to be done. See, the minister has a rabid and unhealthy addiction to erasing the budget deficit by 2015, a target which neatly fits into an election year. However, this addiction has turned the budget tabling process into an exercise of extreme ambiguity and a game of cat and mouse which pushes our parliamentary democracy to the limit.
Crack open the 325 page budget (a normal, exhaustive budget is 90 pages or less) and you will be hard pressed to make sense of some of the things you read. Say you’re a small business owner, perhaps hoping for an increase in a hiring credit? Or maybe a break in business tax? Well boy does the government have a sweetheart deal for you! Not only will Budget 2013 “Continue to reduce red tape and improve services to small businesses,” but they are also going to go that extra mile just to show they care, by “making the tax system simpler and improving tax payer compliance”. As part of the strategy to make cuts and spending commitments hard to find and understand, the budget is riddled with such sweeping statements void of detail or explanation. When it comes to more concrete fiscal commitments, they are equally vague and bundled together with other policy initiatives which make it difficult—and in some cases downright impossible—to put a finger on exactly how much will be spent.
Of course for MPs in Ottawa they are now, sadly, used to this procedure. The budget will now go through the estimates process, where the government seeks parliament’s approval and parliamentarians review cuts and spending. This will be a maddening operation for opposition MPs as questions will be dodged by the government, and hours will be spent in Committee desperately digging deep into the bowels of the budget for details. However, the extremely robust, complex and ambiguous nature of this budget makes this an impossible fight. In many ways it is both ironic and symbolic that the ex-Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page will appear in court this week as he fights the government over documents necessary to understand cuts made from 2 budgets ago. Regardless, June will roll around and opposition will plead for more time for review before voting on the budget. The majority government will ignore these calls, vote down all amendments and pass through the budget of one of the world’s largest economies without having had to provide detailed explanations on how they will actually spend over $200 billion of tax payer money. Democracy in action, folks.
Substantially, there really isn’t too much to this budget. A bone has been thrown to municipalities in the form of infrastructure spending (half of what was being asked for by municipal lobbying groups), the Canada Revenue Agency has received extra funding to help chase tax evasion (after facing deep cuts last year), and money has been set aside for paid student internships. It is neither austere nor stimulating, as the goal is to hold federal expenditures steady and hope the growth in the economy can eat into the deficit. Economist Stephen Gordon explains that 2015 is a feasible target, but the problem remains that the economic forecasting model used in the budget overestimates our economic growth.
So as Mr. Flaherty crosses his fingers on the economy and plays budgetary hide and go seek with Parliament, I think it’s high time to sit him down and tell him: “Jim, this has to stop.”
(Featured photo: Joey.Coleman, Creative Commons, Flickr)