View bloggers



Saint Paul University

223 Main Street
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
K1S 1C4


Toll free



Follow us

Ethics, Orwell & the Federal Budget: Is Institutional Transparency Even Possible?

April 08, 2016

In 2006, the Conservative Government, led by then Prime Minister Stephen Harper, tabled the Federal Accountability Act, which created a special watchdog: the Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO).  The PBO clearly states its mandate on its website, namely, to provide “independent analysis” of items such as “the state of the nation’s finances” as well as “the government’s estimates and trends in the Canadian economy.”

But the PBO is not completely independent of the government.  That is, the PBO can only analyze government estimates based on the information that the government initially provides.  If the government refuses to provide the requisite information, then the PBO cannot fulfill its mandate.

The government must properly feed the watchdog. 

Watchdogs sometimes bite the hand that feeds them.  But more often, they bite the hand that does not feed them.

Politically pesky critters, those watchdogs.

There was no shortage of conflict between the Harper government and the PBO.  The PBO of the time, Kevin Page, actually took the federal government to court over the latter’s refusal to release certain kinds of information.  Mr. Page lost on what is arguably a technicality, but the judge’s ruling was quite clear: that parliament cannot claim parliamentary privilege when it comes to requests for information by the PBO; that parliament must release the requested information.  Moreover, the judge stated that parliament could simply eradicate the PBO in its entirety; there is a nice symmetry here in that the government brought the PBO into existence via legislation and could take the PBO out of existence via legislation.

The symmetry is not merely ornamental.  It is critical.

In other words, since the PBO is the creation of a parliamentary act, it can be neutralized only by another parliamentary act.  In other words, parliament cannot create something and then just ignore it.

You cannot just leave the watchdog tied up and not feed it.  I won’t further pursue the analogy since it is leading down a grisly path.

The Liberals had been highly critical of the Tory government’s refusal to release information to the PBO.  But upon scrutiny of the recent Liberal government budget, the PBO has again barked and snarled at the not-so-feeding hand of government.  The PBO has expressed concerns that once again, the PBO is not receiving the information that it requires for its independent analysis.

Moreover, in the same breath, the PBO is concerned that the Liberal government’s take on independent data provided by the private sector, namely, an adjustment of some 40 billion/year to the projected GDP in 2016 and 2017 is “excessive”.  In other words, the PBO argues that the government is low-balling its fiscal capacities and saying that future deficits will be much higher than they are really likely to be.  In simplest terms: if you say right now that, things will be terrible in a couple of years and they turn out to be not so bad, you look great in the long run.

It is the standard old political game of lowering expectations, beating them and then congratulating yourself on your amazing achievements.

But all that I have just written has been already documented by the CBC and the Globe and Mail.

The great British author, George Orwell, would simply smile and tell us to re-read his famous novella, Animal Farm, a dystopic, allegorical piece that insists, among other things, that Lord Acton’s remark, “power corrupts”, aptly captures human behaviour.

Michel Foucault repeatedly stressed that institutions are forms of power. 

Now, if Foucault, Orwell and Acton are truly on to something, then does it follow that all institutions, in the end, corrupt those who occupy them?  Probably not, since “corrupt” is such a strong term.  But rephrasing the question: do all institutions distort or shape the behaviour of those in them?  Probably so, since it seems quite reasonable, that is, it is a fairly weak thesis to say that individuals are shaped by their environments.

With this weakened thesis, then, the question is: can institutions ever be transparent?  Are watchdogs ultimately objects of political show, all bark and no real bite?

With respect to my concern, here we seem to have two instances of governments coming in, claiming at the outset that they will do things differently and be transparent, but have nonetheless not followed up on the claim.  (Admittedly, I am comparing 9 years of the Harper government with a half year of the Trudeau government so time could reveal the latter to be much different with respect to transparency.)

The great philosopher David Hume tells us to be careful about induction.  Just because something has happened a few times in the past, don’t jump to the conclusion that it will always be this way.  Another great philosopher, Bertrand Russell, liked to joke about the turkey who didn’t understand induction.  The poor bird was very happy.  All summer long the farmer visited him every day and brought a large bucket of tasty food.

Again, time will tell the story of how well the current government handles the issue of transparency, a crucial one since this issue specifically concerns money and deficits, two items that will play a key role in the next federal election.

Can institutions be truly transparent?  At the very least it seems that it is very difficult given the general ways that humans behave, but I would not conclude that it is impossible.  Nonetheless, how to achieve transparency and to what degree are open questions in the field of public ethics. 

But one thing seems fairly certain.  Canada now has two successive governments that initially trumpeted their dedication to transparency and how they will do things different from their predecessor.  The Harper government clearly did not live up to its promise of transparency; the Trudeau government, merely six months into its mandate, is already being accused—on a very important issue, the budget—of not being transparent.  But that may be a blip and not a systematic failure.

But --  if the Trudeau government ultimately fails to live up to its transparency promises, then just how cynical will Canadians be about transparency claims the next time a government promises transparency? 

And -- if Canadians do become extremely cynical about transparency claims by aspiring governments, and political parties realize this, then promising transparency may eventually be seen by politicians as a fruitless endeavour.  Politicians may eventually say something like this with respect to transparency claims:  “if the public won’t buy it, why even try it?”

If that general cynicism eventually soaks the political landscape, then we will indeed find ourselves in a moral bog.  The answer to the question as to whether or not institutions may ever be transparent might be:  “yes, it is impossible for institutions to be transparent.”  But the reason won’t be a deep one, one that requires metaphysics, ethics and all kinds of high-powered sociological analyses.  Rather, it may simply be that nobody will care and nobody will try.  

0 comment

Bookmark and Share


The views expressed in the posts and comments of this webpage are those of the bloggers and those providing comments and may not reflect the views of Saint Paul University.

Comments will be removed for the following reasons:

  1. Use profanity and offensive language;
  2. Include a personal attack towards another user;
  3. Harass or embarrass other users;
  4. Are an infringement on a copyright law or University policy;
  5. Advertise a specific commercial service;
  6. Include a threat of violence;
  7. Are not appropriate for all ages;
  8. Encourage intolerance toward a particular group;
  9. Are included numerous times in a single thread and;
  10. Knowingly mislead other users.