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Righting the wrongs with Canada’s financial accountability

Photo: Nadia Drissi El-Bouzaidi

A third-year political administration student at the University of Ottawa has generated a lot of buzz in her campaign to make federal budgets more transparent. 

Olivia Dorey is working on a website called Matters that will simplify financial data and use basic demographic information to create personalized profiles so Canadians can find out how the government’s policies affect them financially.

“(Matters is) more than a translation,” she said. “I’m wanting it to be a two-way conversation on public finance.”

Matters began a year and a half ago when Dorey was a parliamentary page. She distributed the budgets to Members of Parliament (MP) but found it challenging when she tried to decipher the documents herself.

Dorey said there are “quite a lot of things wrong” with budgets.

She shared her concerns with her public finance professor at the time, Kevin Page, formerly the parliamentary budget officer and now the university’s Jean-Luc Pepin research chair.

“Canada’s parliamentary institutions are not functioning in a healthy way,” Page wrote in an email to the Fulcrum.  He decided to get involved in Dorey’s project to help create “strong institutions for our democracy and future transparency,” he said.

“Budgets are made from the top down in a highly secretive environment. The focus is largely on antiquated concepts of fiscal balance over the short term. There is little focus on longer term sustainability issues… There is little focus on allocation and efficiency at the departmental levels,” said Page.

“The processes set up to hold the executive to account are broken,” he added.

Both Dorey and Page want to change the way MPs vote on budgets, so they vote on specific programs rather than departmental activities.

Dorey said she had consulted with several MPs to determine their understanding of the federal budget.

“They don’t necessarily have the financial background that you would hope that they would have when they’re going in to vote on how all of this money is being spent,” she said, but added, “They have a real willingness to learn, and that’s what’s been most promising for me.”

Her website is “a civic engagement process as well as a financial literacy (one),” said Dorey, which could be a vital tool as Canadians head to the polls in October.

In 2011, 61.1 per cent of eligible Canadians voted in the federal election, while only 38.8 per cent of people aged 18 to 24 cast a ballot.

Dorey said she believes a lack of youth engagement stems from politicians not addressing the issues young people care about. “We’re a generation that can really rally a lot of forces. I think we just haven’t necessarily had something to rally around.”

Dorey hopes her website will one day expand beyond financial data so that it encompasses all government projects at the federal, provincial, and municipal levels.

Matters is among one of several initiatives that have popped up in recent months in hopes of igniting a greater public interest in politics.

The Faculty of Social Sciences at the U of O will host the next instalment of iVote, aimed at communicating the importance of youth engagement in the democratic process, on March 25, with NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, Green Party leader Elizabeth May, and Conservative MP Michael Chong.

The Your Question Period program, created last March, is another initiative that hopes to increase political engagement, which gives Canadians the opportunity to pose their questions to their Senators.

After the launch of Matters, Dorey hopes that citizens will say, “’OK, I see what the government’s doing for me, I understand why I bothered to go out and turn out for elections, and why I bother with all of this, because I can see what this means.’”