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Budget watchdog calls out Liberals for lack of details in budget plans

The report casts a critical eye on the Liberals' third budget amid efforts to complete infrastructure deals worth $33 billion with provinces and territories


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OTTAWA—The Trudeau Liberals are facing pressure from Parliament’s spending watchdog to come clean on billions in spending outlined in last month’s budget that have little or no explanation—be it on infrastructure, programs for Canadians, or the military.

The Liberals’ third budget last month showed billions in planned infrastructure spending was being shifted to future years. The document also showed declines in program spending totalling about $16 billion over six years that reduced the government’s bottom line.

The Liberals provided the watchdog’s office with information to explain why the government believed annual spending would drop by an average of $2.7 billion, but under condition that Jean-Denis Frechette’s office not release the information.

The PBO wasn’t given a reason why the spending information for some departments and Crown corporations couldn’t be shared with taxpayers, which was at odds with other work the Liberals have done to help parliamentarians keep better account of government spending.

“Those improvements are there, but in certain areas they are still hesitant to provide more detailed information. What I don’t understand is why,” said Mostafa Askari, the deputy parliamentary budget officer.

“When I look at that information (about the $16 billion), there’s nothing there that should be confidential.”

Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s department has yet to respond to a request for comment.

The PBO report casts a critical eye on the Liberals’ third budget days before MPs return to the House of Commons after a two-week break and in the middle of a push to complete funding deals with provinces and territories for $33 billion in upcoming infrastructure spending.

The Liberals have repeatedly been forced to defend the slower-than-expected pace of infrastructure spending.

This spending is regularly subject to delays because dollars don’t flow to projects until cities and provinces submit expense receipts, which often creates a lag between when work takes place and when federal money is spent.

Frechette asked the Liberals for a revised plan on how the federal government will spend $186.7 billion in infrastructure money over the next 12 years after the budget showed about one-quarter of planned spending between 2016 and 2019 would be moved to future years. The change means spending drops now, but goes up later, Askari said.

The PBO notes the plan doesn’t yet exist, but adds the government plans to provide more information beyond what was in last month’s budget. Frechette called the budget details an incomplete account of $91.1 billion in existing spending.

Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi said the majority of approved projects are underway and the government is finalizing plans to provide more details about spending across multiple departments.

“We’re hopeful that will deal with some of the concerns that the parliamentary budget office has identified,” Sohi said Thursday from Fredericton, N.B., where he signed a deal to provide the province with more than $673 million over 10 years.

Conservative infrastructure critic Michael Chong said the PBO report shows the Liberals are not living up to their promise to fix roads and bridges and reduce congestion in urban centres. He said the government’s plans lacked details.

“Not only is there a lack of detail, the plans keep changing,” he said, noting spending projections have changed multiple times.

NDP infrastructure critic Brigitte Sansoucy said the Liberals must explain how they plan to avoid further spending delays: “People across the country expect to have a full and up-to-date account of the government’s $186.7 billion investment plan.”

Askari said the budget also doesn’t provide details on a 20-year spending pledge for the military. Last year, the government promised to spend $62 billion more over the next two decades for a major expansion of the Canadian Armed Forces, with much of the money only flowing after next year’s federal election.


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