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Ethics and the Budget--Again! The Trudeau Government throws a Sop to Cerberus?

April 12, 2016

The recent spat between the Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) and the Trudeau government has taken on another twist. It started out with the PBO requesting extra information regarding the government’s recent budget numbers. The budget was tabled in the House of Commons on March 22nd, and on April 1st the PBO requested the additional information. The PBO’s imposed deadline for that information was April 5th. The government did not meet the April 5th deadline.

The government’s reaction was, according to the Globe and Mail, that they would turn over the extra information but that the PBO was to suppress that information. The PBO refused, stating that it is not in the PBO’s mandate to suppress any budgetary information provided by the government.

That seems reasonable on the part of the PBO.

Indeed, the last thing that a watchdog should do is to suppress information at a government’s request. That makes the watchdog into more of a pet, or, as some would say, an "animal companion".  

Also, such a request to suppress could be negatively interpreted, as though the government was trying to strong-arm the PBO.

But it could simply be something rather innocuous. Perhaps the government asked that the PBO suppress the information since that information might have been in a rough draft form, not yet ready for public consumption. This is like someone saying “here, take this document, but it is a draft document, don’t release it to the public. We’ll have a better version ready for the public soon.”

But this interpretation, although possible, seems puzzling.

After all, the information that the government supposedly asked the PBO to suppress, was in fact information that should have been made public in the original tabling of the budget. Wouldn’t that kind of information be in a polished state even prior to the release of the budget itself?

Another interpretation might be one based on an old view concerning simple human error, nicely expressed by Goethe in his work The Sorrows of Young Werther, that more confusion in the world is created by “misunderstandings and neglect” than by “trickery and malice”. In a large operation like the federal government, misunderstandings and neglect could easily account for the conflict with the PBO.

This interpretation is possible, but it, too, is puzzling.

After all, once again, the information that the PBO requested should have been provided in the first place. So, unless there are new procedures or staff, it seems unlikely that misunderstandings and neglect tell the tale. And if it is neglect, then that speaks volumes against the notion of the government’s insistence on transparency.

There is another interpretation. Consider that the government did eventually provide the information, albeit after the watchdog barked about it. Consider further that the information provided is not exactly a watchdog’s meal, but more like a snack.

As the watchdog barks when it is not being fed, that doesn’t mean that you have to completely feed it when it does bark. Dante and Virgil in the depths of Hell were confronted by the three-headed hound, Cereberus; it was going to be serious trouble until Virgil quickly threw a bit of food to the creature, distracting it so that Dante and Virgil could carry on.

Actually, Virgil did not throw food to Cerebus, just a bit of dirt. Nonetheless, it did the trick.

Did the government just throw a sop to Cerberus? Was this another way of saying that they are indeed providing information—a little bit of earth—to the PBO in the hopes of quieting and distracting the PBO, at least for a little while?

But no sustained distraction was achieved here since the PBO, and others, have been quick to point out that the information provided raises more questions, the key one being that the amount of money dedicated to key parts of the Liberal platform will rapidly decline in a couple of years. That is, the middle class tax break and child benefit will drop 75% in 2020-21, from $3.6 billion to $900 million.

As a former math teacher, I always had to stress that my students “show their work”. In this case, where does that money go? Why does it drop? How do you go from 3.6 billion to 900 million?  Will it be clawed back by the government? It is not very clear just what this extra information really means.

Maybe Stephen Lewis, in a scathing speech last Saturday, put his finger on the Liberal plan. Basically, the plan is to run high deficits now—while the mood is favourable towards them. Then, as all things must turn, so too will the public’s mood regarding deficits. When that time comes, the Liberals will then go on a massive cutting campaign and portray themselves as the models of Canadian fiscal responsibility. Indeed, this more or less happened a number of years ago when then Finance Minister Paul Martin, who inherited huge deficits (created by the Liberals and the Tories) and went on to bring in deeper cuts than Harper ever did.

It is hard to say which of these interpretations is correct. No doubt there are others.

But one thing is easy to say—and I suspect not terribly controversial. It is certainly puzzling that there is an ongoing tug of war between the Trudeau government and the PBO, and one so early in the government’s mandate, a government that claimed so loudly that it was going to usher in a new era of openness and transparency.

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