Watchdog report repeats same old story

There has been a lot of important news coming out of Ottawa which has reminded me of “Groundhog Day.”
Not Wiarton Willie so much, but the motion picture from the early 1990s that starred Bill Murray. In that movie, Murray plays a TV weatherman sent to cover the big events of Groundhog Day only to wake the “next morning” to relive the same day over and over and over again.
The news that brought those images to my mind came from the most recent report from Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page.
As you might remember, Mr. Page was appointed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in order to bring truth to budgeting as a part of their supposed accountability agenda. But as I have written in this space before, that’s not how Mr. Page’s experience as a parliamentary watchdog has worked out.
He constantly is faced with Conservative roadblocks, has crucial information withheld from him, and then is attacked publicly and called “incompetent” by various Conservative cabinet ministers.
The cycle repeats itself with each of Mr. Page’s reports.
Last week, Mr. Page released his most recent report on the Conservative government’s plan for cutting the size of federal bureaucracy. In that report, he states there is little evidence the current plans of federal departments will meet the government’s attrition plans for the public service.
As part of their plan to eliminate their $56-billion deficit, the Harper Conservatives have promised to control the size of the federal government, which, according to media reports, has grown by a record 14 percent since the Conservatives came to office five years ago.
In other words, the Conservatives simply have no plan to reduce public-sector costs, which they once claimed was a central part of their plan to reduce the deficit.
As troubling as the lack of a plan to rein in the massive federal deficit is the Conservative government’s determination to constantly obstruct Mr. Page’s work. When Mr. Page requested some basic information about what cuts the government was planning to make in the civil service, the Conservatives cited cabinet confidentiality and refused his request.
It’s true that some cabinet discussions do need to be kept secret, but the broad strokes of the government’s plan to slay a deficit really should not be treated as something only 38 people in Canada know about.
With little to no assistance from the government that appointed him, Mr. Page approached each government department separately and asked them what staffing changes they were planning over the next year. When the various departments reported back saying that no discussions have been had about staff reductions, retirement rates, or otherwise downsizing, Mr. Page was left but with one conclusion–the departments are not planning to reduce their size as the Harper government claimed.
If there was a plan, then certainly senior management in the departments would have been asked what “efficiencies” could be found and what staffing changes could help the government reduce the size of the bureaucracy.
The departments weren’t asked, so Mr. Page concluded as anyone else would have—there probably was no such plan in place.
This same story of government obstruction seems to repeat itself over and over. First, the government refuses to help Mr. Page do his job and then blasts him for trying to do it without their help. All the while the Harper Conservatives continue to proclaim themselves as the guardians of transparency.
Ever since creating this position and appointing Mr. Page, Prime Minister Harper and his government have done everything in their power to undermine and discredit him and his role as an Officer of Parliament. It’s a pattern that seems to repeat itself every quarter.
To the Conservative government, the words “accountability” and “transparency” simply are buzzwords with no actual meaning once the campaign ends.
If they did have meaning and if they truly were priorities of this government, then Mr. Harper and his ministers would support, assist, and promote the good work of watchdogs like Mr. Page instead of obstructing and publicly attacking them.

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