Ottawa's reporting on stimulus spending gets poor grade from watchdog
Parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page uses words such as ‘uneven,' ‘inconsistent' and ‘missing' to describe government's record to date
Ottawa — From Saturday's Globe and Mail Published on Saturday, Oct. 10, 2009 12:35AM EDT Last updated on Saturday, Oct. 10, 2009 4:17AM EDT
The Harper government has done such a spotty job of reporting on its progress in stimulating the ailing economy that it is thwarting efforts to measure whether this spending is making a difference, Ottawa's budget watchdog says.
Parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page uses words such as “uneven,” “inconsistent” and “missing” in a report released yesterday describing the federal government's record to date.
He said Ottawa is falling far short of the United States in reporting on the progress of its stimulus spending – that is, in detailing how much of the $47-billion injection is in the economy now.
This matters, Mr. Page said, because Canada needs to know how much of the recent signs of economic recovery are due to stimulus spending – to separate it from what might be real growth at work.
“There's still doubt about the recovery, about how strong it's going to be. We need to know how much is due to government and how much is due to other factors,” Mr. Page said.
In polite but trenchant criticism, the budget officer's analysis released yesterday suggested the government's third report to Canadians on stimulus spending progress – delivered on Sept. 28 – didn't accomplish much.
“Given that more data are now available to provide evidence of the economic stimulus impacts, it is to be expected that the quality of reporting would progressively improve. However, the format and content of the third report is largely unchanged from previous iterations.”
Mr. Page, appointed by the Tories in 2008 to scrutinize budgeting and forecasts, has become a thorn in Ottawa's side by questioning government estimates on everything from the cost of the war in Afghanistan to fiscal outlooks.
The United States, the parliamentary budget officer notes, is now reporting biweekly how much stimulus spending is reaching each state. Washington is also assessing the economic impact of its stimulus package based on money already in the economy. “We are nowhere near this,” he said.
Eight months after it announced a stimulus package, the Harper government continues to focus its reporting on process: how much stimulus funding has been allocated to projects, rather than making a priority of detailing how much is actually stimulating activity.
The Tories say more than half of the infrastructure and housing projects so far announced have begun, but their main message in reporting is that “90 per cent” of this year's planned stimulus “has been committed.”
Mr. Page said “committed” is too vague to be helpful, using the example of a neighbour who's asked him to cut down a dead tree on his property.
“I keep saying I am committed to taking that tree down, I am 90-per-cent committed – even 100-per-cent committed,” Mr. Page said. “But I still haven't done it in two years. She wants to see the saws and noise and at that point she can say, ‘Okay it's coming down.'”
“It's not until you know that the projects are not only committed, but launched – and people are making progress – that you know there's going to be economic value created by that money spent.”
The Conservative government is nevertheless dismissing the notion that it's not disclosing enough to Canadians.
“As soon as we announce a project, it's made public and posted on the web,” Chris Day, spokesman for Infrastructure Minister John Baird said.
“Our focus is getting projects approved and creating jobs.”
Opposition parties charge that the paucity of information on stimulus progress reports reflects the fact that the money is only slowly trickling out across Canada.
Saturday, October 10, 2009
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