Parliamentary Budget Officer’s Request for Information

Hon. Jim Munson: Honourable senators, my question is for the Leader of the Government in the Senate. A few weeks ago, the Parliamentary Budget Officer, Mr. Kevin Page, released a partial analysis of $5.2 billion in planned spending cuts. His report was incomplete because a more thorough examination was not possible due to the lack of information provided by the government. While only 91 per cent of departments responded to Mr. Page’s requests, only one quarter — accounting for 3 per cent of the $5.2 billion in spending cuts — offered any information about personal losses or the impact on services.

In this democracy, should parliamentarians not also know what is being cut, as well as what is being spent?

Hon. Marjory LeBreton (Leader of the Government): Honourable senators, the government will continue to provide the Parliamentary Budget Officer with data that falls within his mandate. As well, we will continue to report to Parliament through normal reporting means, which we are doing, including the estimates, quarterly financial reports and the public accounts, which comprise the economic activity of the government. That is the proper way it has been done in the past, and that is the way we are continuing to do it.

Senator Munson: The Parliamentary Budget Officer’s mandate, honourable senators, is to report to MPs and senators. His work also yielded specific information about only 500 of the 19,200 affected jobs. That is a lot of jobs.

When asked about this on CBC’s Power & Politics, the finance minister indicated that the Parliamentary Budget Officer’s mandate is simply to look at government spending. He said that what the Parliamentary Budget Officer is proposing to do now is to look at the government’s non-spending and the minister did not see that as his mandate. I do not quite understand that logic.

Elsewhere in the world, officials have no difficulty obtaining information about government expenditures. Why will this government not be more forthcoming about the impact of its budget cuts on Canadians?

Senator LeBreton: Honourable senators, the mandate of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, as the Minister of Finance quite clearly stated, is to report to Parliament on government spending. It is quite a unique situation that, when the government saves taxpayers money, somehow or other this becomes an issue, especially with people of the honourable senator’s political persuasion.

Senator Munson: It becomes an issue when people’s lives and health are at stake. According to information Mr. Page received, most savings will be realized by cutting international, immigration, defence and social programs, as well as other government programs.

One area of particular concern is the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. The organization is faced with an annual cut of $19 million to its Food Safety Program. That initiative aims for 98 per cent of federally regulated establishments to be compliant with inspection regulations. We know what has happened in the last few months and it has scared Canadians literally to death. We know from the recent XL Foods recall that compliance in these establishments is not up to par.

Without more information, how can we know about the effects the $19 million cut will have on the Canadian Food Inspection Agency? What other government services affecting the health and safety of Canadians will be impacted by budget cutbacks? It is a simple question with a simple answer.

Senator LeBreton: As the Secretary of the Treasury Board and the Minister of Finance have stated, services provided to Canadians are not being affected. What we are looking for are efficiencies within the various government departments in delivering these services.

The honourable senator mentioned food safety. He knows full well that Budget 2012 included an additional investment of $50 million over two years to enhance food safety, building upon the $100 million in last year’s budget. Of course, the honourable senator’s colleagues in the other place voted against this.

We have invested in the Food and Consumer Safety Action Plan to give the CFIA the power to do more inspection on imports. We have hired over 700 new food inspectors, including 170 meat inspectors. We are moving forward with all 57 recommendations of the Weatherill report. Of course, in this very institution, we passed Bill S-11, the Safe Food for Canadians Act, which further strengthens the food safety system and the recall process, including penalties.