Budget, budget, we want a budget

By Walter Robinson
web posted February 5, 2001

Parliament reconvened last week and the first order of business was electing a new Speaker. After several ballots, Kingston area Liberal MP Peter Milliken was chosen. MPs, especially Liberal backbenchers, should savour the memory of this election, it will probably be the last free vote they cast this Parliament.

Governor General Adrienne Clarkson
Governor General Adrienne Clarkson

On January 30, Governor General Adrienne Clarkson delivered the Speech from the Throne. We'll return to its contents shortly, but first, another rarity. All opposition parties agreed that the Speech lacked any cohesive vision or theme and that a Budget was, and is, needed.
Liberal partisans were quick to counter that the Speech theme was one of 'inclusion.' And they're probably right: almost every big-government policy idea was included. And although we couldn't find specific mention of the kitchen sink in the Throne Speech, we'll double check the French translation just to be sure.

Some fourteen new or continuing government initiatives were sighted which will entail significant, multi-year government expenditures. These include:

  • doubling federal support for R&D activities by 2010;
  • increasing the national child benefit over the next four years;
  • federal funding for municipal waste and waste water infrastructure projects;
  • stimulation of the creation of affordable rental housing;
  • more subsidies for the CBC;
  • more money for book publishers and the sound recording industry; and
  • increases to Canada's official development assistance (read: foreign aid) programs.

And we haven't even begun to tally the open-ended commitments where the feds employ synonyms for spending like, "we will invest", "the government will invest" or the variety of other terms (will help, develop, accelerate, enhance, champion, protect and promote, etc.) that pepper the Throne Speech that are merely code for Ottawa will spend your money.

But even more alarming than the extensive government program wish list or some of the contradictions in the Throne Speech (announcing a Citizens Council on Health Care Quality but shutting the door on any changes to the Canada Health Act) is the Finance Minister's refusal to table a budget later this month or next.

This is patently and fundamentally wrong. Government by press releases or Ministerial news conferences is unacceptable. Are we simply going to approve program spending by ways and means motions or special warrants? From a political perspective, Bob Rae's NDP tried to govern this way in Ontario and needless to say, it wasn't a recipe for political success. Moreover, without a budget, Parliament is effectively neutered and the provinces are hampered in preparation of their own Budget documents.

In addition, with a 100 basis-point drop in interest rates in the United States, a slowing - if not stalled - North American economy and recent Statistics Canada data showing measurable drops in factory growth and the automotive sector, it is Minister Martin's duty to publicly update the government's revenue and expenditure projections.

Despite government assurances that balanced budgets will continue, the disturbing message emerging from the Throne Speech is one of "you send it, and we'll spend it." Proper and accountable government demands a budget that can be tabled and properly debated in Parliament.

The only question is not if Minister Martin will bring down a budget, the question is when? Chant with me now ... budget, budget, we want a budget.

Walter Robinson is the Federal Director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

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