Les citoyens et les représentants élus savent-ils vraiment comment les gouvernements taxent et dépensent ? Trop souvent, ils ne le savent pas. Et l’impact fiscal de COVID-19 a rendu la transparence des budgets et des états financiers des gouvernements plus importante que jamais. Comme l’indiquent les notes allant de A à D dans ce bulletin, certains des gouvernements supérieurs du Canada fournissent des informations utiles et opportunes, mais d’autres sont loin d’être à la hauteur.
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Canada’s senior governments raise and spend huge amounts, and have legally unlimited capacity to borrow when their expenses exceed their revenues. Holding public officials accountable for their spending, taxing and borrowing is a foundational task in a system of representative government. Citizens have the right to know, and elected representatives have duties to them.
While much of the financial information presented to legislators and the public by Canada’s federal, provincial and territorial governments has improved over time, the C.D. Howe Institute’s 2022 report card reveals shortfalls. Too many governments present information that is opaque, misleading and late.
This report card on the usefulness of governments’ budgets, estimates and financial statements assigns letter grades that reflect how readily an interested but non-expert user can find, understand and act on the information they should contain. In this year’s report card – which covers year-end financial statements for fiscal year 2020/21, and budgets and estimates for 2021/22 – Alberta and Yukon topped the class with grades of A and A- respectively. Nunavut, Saskatchewan, and New Brunswick each scored B+, Ontario scored a B, and Quebec scored a B-. Prince Edward Island scored a C+, and Nova Scotia scored a C. The federal government and Newfoundland and Labrador got grades of D+. Manitoba, British Colombia and the Northwest Territories were at the bottom of the class with grades of D.
In some respects, this mixed picture represents improvement. Two decades ago, none of Canada’s senior governments budgeted and reported revenues, expenses and surpluses or deficits on the same accounting basis; today, presentations consistent with public sector accounting standards are the rule. Canada’s governments, however, can do better.
The Northwest Territories could improve its grade with better budget presentations and interim updates. Alberta could improve its grade by releasing its estimates in one document. Newfoundland and Labrador could improve its grade with a more timely release of its budget and estimates. Most senior governments could improve their grades with more timely releases of public accounts: only two – Alberta and Saskatchewan – released theirs within 90 days of the end of the fiscal year. The federal government, which earned a grade of F in last year’s report card, mainly because of its egregious and unprecedented failure to produce a budget, was slow to release its public accounts because it reopened the books – another worrying precedent from a government that should be setting the standard for transparent, reliable and timely financial information.
Massive increases in spending and borrowing by governments in response to the COVID-19 crisis, and ambitions for new social programs and industrial policies in its aftermath, have raised the stakes – and, unfortunately, coincided with some serious backsliding in the transparency and timeliness of financial information.
This annual report card hopes to encourage further progress and limit backsliding. Canadians can get more transparent financial reporting and better fiscal accountability from their governments, if they demand it.