Thursday, February 16, 2012

Harper eyes the parliamentary budget for cuts

News from CTV last night that Harper is looking for a 10 per cent cut to Parliament's $585M budget. A few thoughts come to mind.

First, is this a distraction from Harper's humongous internet surveillance bungle? Maybe. After the tremendously bad p.r. they've been getting over the last week or so where their Reform fangs are showing, a reassertion of their economic management focus would be likely. Or, it's possible that the coming Flaherty budget could be bad and that this is a bit of the cover for the coming hit. As in, Parliament is taking its medicine, Canada must as well.

Whatever the political backdrop may be, let's consider the idea. This proposal of a 10% reduction to the $586 million parliamentary budget is - wait a minute for the math - yep, about $58 million. Now is that a substantial savings in the context of the entire budget for the Government of Canada at this moment? Probably not. It sounds symbolic, if anything. It's also not clear that we, as a nation, have to go down a serious austerity road, so it's also not clear that core parliamentary budgets, such as MP office budgets or other operating costs, even need to be on the table.

Now is there excess fat in the parliamentary budget that warrants trimming? We just don't know. This proposed reduction is difficult to gauge. These expenditures are not publicly posted, which seems ridiculous. So we just don't know if there is excess in things like MP office budgets, for example. We shouldn't presume there is excess, however, just because Mr. Harper has his eye on these items. He might have his eye on this funding for reduction precisely because the public can't tell whether we need to do it or not.

The fact, however, that all parties, including the Conservatives, seem to be expressing initial opposition to this idea suggests that cuts to parliamentary spending may not be warranted. May not be. Again, we don't know and information asymmetry land is where Harper seems to enjoy living, politically speaking.

Harper and brain trust shouldn't assume that people's eyes will glaze over out of disinterest on this one though. People do care about the workings of Parliament, that our seat of government functions properly. That was demonstrated during the prorogation uproar. It has also been magnified during this internet surveillance brouhaha. We need to keep our parliamentary representatives and our parliament amply resourced to counter the Harper majority government. It's all part of a narrative on democracy that's developing and we'll see, but these cuts could feed into that.

If MPs can make the case, across party lines, that there isn't excess, then they should go for it. We need to have a well-functioning Parliament in the Harper era, that much is quite obvious. If anything, some of us would argue for more parliamentary capabilities, like enhanced resources for committees, for example. 

Another question comes to mind. Would this floated restraint include the Prime Minister's Office and the Privy Council Office? Based on recent reporting, there doesn't seem to be any such restraint going on in the head guy's fiefdom (see flights, proliferating communications staff, appointments of failed candidates as shadow MPs). Surely Mr. Harper would get out in front and lead by example to the tune of at least 10% in equal measure if MPs and parliamentary expenditures are going to be eyed.

More meetings on the proposed cuts to come, they say. Stay tuned.

Update (7:30 p.m.): The Rural Canadian looked at the issue of parliamentary expenses back in 2010 and notes how little things have changed, that the issue is coming up once again.