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The Canadian Government Misplaced $3.1 Billion

Despite losing billions of dollars under their couch, the Conservatives are pointing their finger of accountability at the CBC and compromising its independence.

by Alan Jones
May 3 2013, 5:09pm

A slightly modified image, via Flickr.

Since being elected to government nine years ago, Stephen Harper's Conservatives haven't exactly proven themselves to be particularly principled. They once ran on promises to decrease the size of government, cut spending, and increase accountability in the government, but instead, they've increased the size of the cabinet to 39 ministers, embraced a Keynesian economic stimulus plan in the face of a recession, ran up the largest deficit in Canadian history, and closed off government transparency to a degree that would make Liberals blush, even in private.

I don't particularly mind that the Tories haven't embraced the scorched-earth spending cuts that some of its more ardent critics would prefer (it's preferable to see the Conservatives go back on their promises than for Canada to face off against a global economic crisis with austerity) but it's the hypocrisy that rankles.

In the government's latest spending “boondoggle,” Auditor General Michael Ferguson was unable to locate $3.1 billion dedicated to anti-terrorism spending that was spent between 2001-2009. The Conservatives have been in office since 2006. Given that the total budget for anti-terrorism sits at $12.9 billion, it's more than a little alarming that almost a quarter of the budget can't be found. The Auditor-General doesn't believe that it's just disappeared, but he did provide suggestions for, you guessed it, better accountability from the government.

For his part, Tony Clement, who is president of the Treasury Board and no stranger to public spending boondoggles, insists that “All government spending, every nickel and dime, is reported to Parliament and accounted for each and every year in the public accounts,” which is obviously not the case. $3 billion is a shitload of cash to misplace, even if there's nothing overtly malevolent behind it's disappearance. Whenever the Tories get themselves into trouble for spending too much, it often has to do with defence spending, whether it's because they hid the true cost of a fleet of F-35 fighter jets, or because Defence Minister Peter MacKay allegedly used a Search and Rescue helicopter for a fishing trip.

Meanwhile, when it comes to government departments and agencies that are held in less favour by the Conservative government, Stephen Harper rarely offers the same amount of leeway. In the same report that revealed the unaccounted $3.1 billion dollars, the Auditor General also criticized the government, particularly the Aboriginal Affairs department, for failing to help the Truth and Reconcilation Commission create a properly researched historical record of Canada's heinous residential school system. Harper himself created the Commission as part of his 2008 mea culpa to survivors of the residential schools in 2008, but given the Tories' recent track record with the Aboriginal community (responding to the Attawapiskat crisis and the ensuing Idle No More movement by passing a First Nations accountability bill instead of, you know, helping), they aren't likely to put a lot of effort into providing the commission with the resources it needs.

In a more visible move, the Conservatives have engaged themselves in a campaign to remove any dissenting voices from Canada's public broadcaster, the CBC. The CBC has long been a target of Conservative spendthrifts, who like to accuse it having a left-wing bias, despite the venerable public broadcaster giving prominent pundit positions to obviously right-wing figures like Dragon's Den asshat Kevin O'Leary, National Post's Andrew Coyne, and (up until some recent remarks about kiddie porn) former Conservative advisor Tom Flanagan. The CBC also has liberal and left-wing pundits, of course, because it's the responsibility of news organizations to criticize the government, whether it's publicly funded or not.

Last year, Jim Flaherty's federal budget announced a three-year $115 million cut to the CBCs annual $1.1 billion budget. In response, the CBC laid off 650 employees. If these cuts, made possible by the Conservative majority elected in 2011, had any effect, it was to reduce the ability of the CBC to provide independent reporting and rely more on advertising revenue, a tool which most public broadcasters around the world don't have to use. Given that eight of the 11 board members for the CBC have donated money to the Conservative Party (as revealed by Friends of Canadian Broadcasting), the idea that its governed by a cohort of latte-sipping socialists is preposterous.

This year, Stephen Harper has a new trick up his sleeve in his war against dissent with the introduction of Bill C-60 into Parliament. As the Hill Times reports, the omnibus bill includes a clause that would give Harper's cabinet the power to approve “salaries and working conditions” at the public broadcaster, along with Via Rail and Canada Post, a two other Crown corporations that rely on independence from the government to fulfill their duties. This bill would allow Conservatives to substantially affect who reports the news at the public broadcaster.

However, the role the government plays in dictating the responsibilities of a public broadcaster should be minimal. Given that the CBC is largely funded by taxes, it is within reason to suggest that the government can cut its budget. That said, the waters get all sorts of muddy when that government is engaged in a pointless public feud with that broadcaster. It’s clear that the Conservatives have changed public policy to give themselves more power over a Crown corporation—and that’s a flagrant abuse of power. When a public broadcaster is given leeway and resources to fulfill its mandate of providing the population with Canadian content, it becomes an integral part of the cultural landscape. When the government controls it, the CBC can quickly become a propaganda tool.

But this is Conservative policy in a nutshell. When something might expose the weaknesses of their rule, they demand accountability and transparency, whether it's because a complete census report might reveal their shortfalls, or because actual science might contradict their political beliefs about Alberta's tar sands. Yet, when $3 billion worth of defence money goes missing, because somebody wasn't filing receipts properly, the issue is deflected. While it might look like we're getting accountability from afar, Harper is giving us political tactics, attaching requirements of accountability and transparency to Crown corporations that don't need it, while letting his Defence Minister misplace $3 billion in a department that sorely does need it. Meanwhile, the Canadian deficit is still staggeringly high and, in total dollars spent, so is the budget. So small-c conservatives who value small government aren't happy and neither are the Canadians who value public services, which leads to the obvious question: why did anyone vote for these guys?

Follow Alan on Twitter: @alanjonesxxxv

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