HOW OTTAWA SPENDS: THE LIBERALS, THE OPPOSITION & FEDERAL PRIORITIES
Edited by G. Bruce Doern
Volume 12 Number 1
This is the fourth annual review of government spending produced by Carleton University's school of public administration. As in previous editions, individual essays examine government spending priorities and the workings of selected federal departments. What ultimately emerges is a more complex picture of federal government spending than might at first glance be supposed to exist.
As in most collections of scholarly articles, the results are mixed: a bouillabaisse of astute observation, banal commonplaces, and downright foolishness.
It comes as no surprise to have Michael Prince tell us, for example, that federal opposition parties are as regionally-based as the governing Liberal Party and that they feel little obligation to add up the costs of their counterproposals and that all bets are off anyway once an opposition party gains power.
But Bruce Doern's examination of spending priorities in the Trudeau era, taken in the context of post-Confederation Canadian history, is a neat summation of the stresses and strains all federal government budgets are subject to. He finds an underlying rhythm in the ebb and flow of contending economic and social ideas (for example, restricting government expenditures versus spending money to create jobs to combat unemployment), one reason why it is difficult for governments to do first things first. Ideas are only part of the story, however; the demands of interest groups, media activity, and partisan politics also play a part.
Partisan politics certainly play a role in federal government advertising, though, as W.T. Stanbury et al., remind us, most of it is not strongly objected to by the public (for example, health and fitness messages). And though the recently introduced "envelope system" of budgeting is an improvement over what had gone before, it is not working as well as it could, (according to Richard Van Loon) in part because determined ministers can manipulate any system to their own department's advantage.
The human element would surely scuttle the suggestion put forward by Luc Fortin and Conrad Winn that the CBC reduce its news and public affairs programming and promote national unity with television dramas in both English and French. Not if they're on opposite The Love Boat!
Other articles illustrate one of the most salient features of federal government spending: the "what's a million" syndrome. We are told that at $56 million, the federal government is the country's largest advertiser, but that that sum represents less than one tenth of one per cent of total government expenditures of $89 billion. One is tempted to excuse the government for spending only $56 million, but that is still a lot of money, particularly when more deserving social and cultural programs are often curtailed in the interests of "restraint."
Not that more is better. Allan Maslove points out that government loan guarantees to ailing corporations, while not a new situation, nevertheless commit billions of dollars that contribute to the "structural rigidity of the Canadian economy." On the other hand, the justite department (according to S.L. Sutherland) is "one of the more active centres of innovation in social policy in Canada in the 1980s," despite a relatively small budget; its business is conducted mainly by regulation, rather than spending.
On the whole, a regular reader of this series would acquire a well-rounded view of the intricacies and subtleties of federal government spending in all its many dimensions. Subject specialists will often 'find confirmed what they already knew or suspected but will also very likely gain new insights. High school teachers could well read this book profitably for background as required.
Paul E. Blower, Sault Ste. Marie P. L., Sault Ste. Marie, ON.
1971-1979 | 1980-1985 | 1986-1990 | 1991-1995
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