Budget shell game or bad planning leaves $10 billion unaccounted for

This week I met with representatives from ALS Canada who explained they were concerned about the impact the conservative budget is having on their organization. They are looking to have parliament reinstate the funding they were receiving up until 2012 that had been cut in last year’s omnibus, austerity budget.  They say it is costing them dearly as they cannot afford to keep the highly specialized personnel required for research into this unforgiving disease.   Their story is an example of what cut-backs look like and is unfortunately one that will play out for quite a while as the depth and scope of indiscriminate cuts becomes known.

But the budget cuts aren’t the only source of current and future frustration that Canadians will deal with.  The government is also holding back cash – and lots of it!  It seems the government is intent on overinflating their estimated spending budgets while holding back the funds earmarked for departments to provide much needed services and programs for Canadians. Now they are asking for an additional $5.4 billion in the latest round of supplementary estimates and remain tight-lipped about the $10 billion they approved and did not spend over the last 3 years.

The Parliamentary Budget Officer is asking if the new money is even necessary with so much old money still on the table and the government are playing a ‘trust me’ card, which is both difficult to do and runs counter to notion of transparency with the public books. They must understand on some level that it would be easier to trust them if they had explained why they haven’t spent such significant amounts from the last three budgets. True, federal Ministries will sometimes hold back money to use the next year, but they usually spend most of their allotment and when they don’t, it doesn’t amount to billions.

This, again, is set against a backdrop of government-wide departmental cuts. However, with such large amounts left over from three previous budgets, one can speculate that departments may be cutting deeper than the projected ten percent.  Only now are Canadians beginning to notice the impact of these cuts – veterans’ losing regional offices and the same for Service Canada outlets – just to name a few. 

What is clear is that we have not been getting realistic budget numbers for three years running.  Transfer payments for Health Care are frozen and set to shrink.  Funding for Aboriginal education has been frozen for almost 20 years. So as you can see there is clear and demonstrable need while money is being left on table.

This isn’t like finding a few bucks in the pocket of a coat you haven’t worn in a while.  It seems far more cynical and premeditated.  One could imagine the government is creating a windfall to pay down the deficit which begs the question, why bother with an elaborate ruse?  If that is the case, the party that promised a new brand of transparency, will have reached deeply into Paul Martin’s bag of shell-game tricks and pulled out one they railed against consistently when they were in opposition.