A plea for more transparent federal budgets

For a document that weighs in at close to 500 pages, the federal budget contains precious little information about  much of what the federal government does. The revenue side of the ledger is not bad, but the expenditure side is just plain awful. Try it yourself: the 2007 federal budget is here. Now tell me: What is the budget for the Ministry of Industry? How about the Ministry of Health? What are the revenues and expenditures of Canada Post or the CBC? What are the feds’ capital expenditures?

The answer to all of the above is that we do not know – which is odd given that this is supposed to be a budget. The best information in the budget, as far as expenditures go, are for funds that the federal government transfers elsewhere: transfers to the provinces (for equalization, the Canada Health Transfer and the Canada Social Transfer) and to people (old age pensions and children’s benefits). But for the budgets of the departments, agencies and Crown corporations that occupy all of those office towers in Ottawa, there is almost nothing. (I should note that this is not to specifically blame the Conservatives, as the Liberals delivered budgets in much the same manner.)

At best, we have to wait until the end of the fiscal year to get some more detail in the Annual Financial Report and the Fiscal Reference Tables. Here I can learn that the defence budget for 2006/07 was $15.7 billion, but looking through the 2007 budget, I have no clue what that number will be for 2007/08. A few of the Crowns are listed in the AFR, too. But neither the AFR or FRT provide department-level expenditure information – only a lump-sum of $40.4 billion. This seems like way too much money across many different portfolios to merit one line of detail.

Compare this to the BC Budget. The annual budget document provides much greater detail on sources of revenue and expenses by ministries, Crowns and capital projects. This does not prevent the Ministry of Finance from low-balling its revenues and ending the day with massive surpluses, but it does make it much more transparent where tax dollars are actually being spent, and how funding has changed over time.

Ottawa must start doing the same. The budget is perhaps the most important thing Parliament does each year. Transparency of budget documents is essential to a healthy democracy. And given all that talk about accountability when the Conservatives came in, surely this is one area where they could actually deliver.

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