Budget officer urges improved reporting

Thu Feb 26, 2009 1:36pm EST
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OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada's government should subject its budget to legislative scrutiny on a quarterly basis, providing economic and fiscal updates and show whether spending and tax initiatives are meeting their objectives.

The country's parliamentary budget officer, Kevin Page, made the recommendations in a report on Thursday, saying the economic crisis is an opportunity to improve oversight of government spending.

"This increased scrutiny of the stimulus measures, both in Canada and abroad, paves the way for improved budgetary reporting and oversight practices," he wrote in his report.

His proposals come after the chief opposition party, the Liberal Party, said it would agree to keep the minority Conservatives in power, but only if they agreed to report more frequently to Parliament so that lawmakers can check that government spending is on schedule and doing the job it is supposed to.

The first report is due on March 11 but so far nobody is quite sure what it should contain. Page said his recommendations should be viewed as a contribution to an ongoing "dialogue" on the matter.

Normally, Ottawa presents a budget in the first quarter and an update on its fiscal and economic outlook early in the fourth quarter. It provides a monthly report on the budget balance with a brief explanation of the results for revenues and spending.

Under Page's proposal, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty would provide an updated survey of private-sector economic forecasts every quarter. The report should also assess risks to the outlook and compare actual economic performance to budget assumptions.

On fiscal performance, the government should publish comparisons of real results versus expectations, a discussion of fiscal risks, and, if the outlook has changed dramatically, an update to five-year fiscal forecasts.

Page also offers a spreadsheet template for tracking the implementation of budget measures and checking their performance against objectives.

For example, for the government's proposed creation of a national securities regulator, the tracking sheet would state that one of the desired outcomes is financial stability, which could be determined by indicators of price and volume in financial markets, including interest rate spreads.

(Reporting by Louise Egan; Editing by Peter Galloway)