Strengthening Fiscal Transparency Act
An Act to amend the Parliament of Canada Act (Parliamentary Budget Officer)
Peggy Nash NDP
Introduced as a private member’s bill. (These don’t often become law.)
Introduction and First Reading
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Government Operations and Estimates
Committees of the House
November 5th, 2012 / 8:20 p.m.
Peggy Nash Parkdale—High Park, ON
Mr. Speaker, as I begin my speech this evening, I have to say that I have never seen a situation in the House where the government essentially sends in one player to rag the puck on a debate that is of such fundamental importance to Canadians, which is the tax dollars that are sent to Ottawa and how that money gets spent. Fundamentally, it is about the democratic process and democratic accountability. It is clear from the speech and the response to questions we have just heard by the government member that the Conservatives do not want to talk about accountability. It is especially shocking given that we are here tonight debating a report that was recommended by all parties at the committee stage.
To now have a motion calling for this report to be sent back to the committee for further study really does a disservice to all of the hard work done by the committee, to all of the witnesses who appeared before it, to all of the work done preparing the report and to the seriousness with which I know my colleagues on this side of the House take this subject. The subject is, of course, the tax dollars Canadians send in, how the money is spent and how it is accounted for.
The estimates we deal with here in Parliament are significant sums of money. We are talking about $254 billion of Canadians' tax dollars. Of that amount, $160 billion is committed through statutory agreements, but $94 billion worth of Canadians' tax dollars is what Parliamentarians debate and decide on. That is what we are talking about this evening with respect to this report on financial accountability. It is about how we account for this money in a way that is organized, clear and task-specific so that, when members of Parliament are representing their constituents and looking at the estimates, we know clearly and precisely what it is we are talking about.
Budgets are about how money gets spent. That is what the estimates detail. It is about the decisions government makes. An example is the fact that we continue to have a number of people who are unemployed, a level 25% higher than before the recession started, with 1.4 million still out of work. The fact that we still have these people facing a human crisis every day is certainly of concern to Parliamentarians and something we should be dealing with through the estimates process, especially when only 40% of Canadians are able to even get the employment insurance benefits that they and their employers have paid for through premiums. Therefore, how we deal with unemployment is one area of concern.
Another concern is whether or not we are investing in infrastructure and transit. In my city of Toronto, the Board of Trade estimates that lack of transit investment is a $6 billion drag on the economy of our region, which is especially shocking given that the direct and indirect benefits of transit investment would create hundreds of thousands of construction jobs, not to mention the general importance to our economy, our environment and the daily lives of Canadians.
Whether or not we are spending money on other kinds of infrastructure and whether or not we are providing affordable housing is of concern. My area, the GTA, delivers about 20% of Canada's GDP, but it is increasingly becoming an unaffordable place to live. A decision was made by the government not to invest in affordable housing, even though it would have created many new jobs for Canadians and made life more affordable.
All of these decisions are important for parliamentarians to review through the estimates process, and it is fundamentally the work of parliamentarians. I commend the Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates for the work it has done. There are a number very positive recommendations in this report, which generally we in our party supported. We want to see adequate information, because we do not have a lot of time to assess the estimates that are given to us. One of the recommendations is about providing more time to parliamentarians, but making the whole process more coherent, providing clearer, more consistent, more reliable information so any member of Parliament could have a common reference point to study the spending plans of the government. That is certainly something very basic that all Canadians expect of us.
There are many positive recommendations in this report and a terrific amount of hard work that has been done. It is astonishing that the Conservatives want to send this report back again to the committee. They want to rag the puck just as they are doing tonight in this House by not treating this report seriously. That sends the message to Canadians that the Conservatives do not treat the spending of their tax dollars seriously and they are basically saying they have noblesse oblige, that whatever they decide is up to them and that parliamentarians and therefore Canadians should not be able to provide adequate scrutiny.
There is one area in which the report is sadly deficient, and this again fundamentally comes down to transparency and accountability, and that is in the role of the Parliamentary Budget Officer. It is well known that the Parliamentary Budget Officer's position was created in order to provide transparency and accountability and to ensure there was an independent analysis of the financial numbers that are before members of Parliament, taken out of the politics of the daily cut and thrust of Parliament.
When this position was created under the Federal Accountability Act, Bill C-2 at the time, it was touted by the government as doing just that. It was to prevent some of the problems of previous governments, whereby spending was overestimated, deficits were overestimated and then at the end of the year we were able to see that the numbers were not very accurate all along. It was also important in the wake of the sponsorship scandal that there be this kind of more stringent accountability. The position of the Parliamentary Budget Officer was created, and it was a significant step forward that we supported.
However, what we were calling for, and continue to call for today and have recommended in this report, is that the Parliamentary Budget Officer's position be as an independent officer along the lines of the Auditor General, so that the Parliamentary Budget Officer could have full access to all the information that he or she would need to conduct the work of the PBO. It is a shocking state of affairs today that the PBO has been driven to the point of saying he needs to take the government to court to get the basic financial information he needs from government departments to do his job.
I have introduced a private member's bill, Bill C-381, calling for the Parliamentary Budget Officer to be made an independent officer of Parliament, like the Auditor General, so he would have full access to the resources and numbers he needs and the full authority to do his job in the way that I believe Canadians expected when this position was first created.
I thank my colleague for Ottawa Centre who, prior to my introducing this bill, had introduced a similar bill calling for the independence of the Parliamentary Budget Officer. It was a groundbreaking position when it was created, but the position has failed to have the full authority the PBO needs to do the job.
It is not just New Democrats who are saying this. We had excellent testimony, before the committee, making this recommendation. I would like to quote one of the witnesses, Dr. David Good, Professor, School of Public Administration, University of Victoria, who said:
First, I would make the Parliamentary Budget Officer a full agent of Parliament to assist parliamentarians and committees. I think the role and mandate of the Parliamentary Budget Officer needs to be clarified and strengthened by making the office legislatively separate and independent of the Library of Parliament, thereby operating as a full agent of Parliament. A confused mandate, which I think we've had since its creation, only serves to increase partisanship and the scoring of political points rather than channelling substantive information to elevate the level of debate to assist parliamentarians in the scrutiny of the budget and the estimates. As a full agent of Parliament, the Parliamentary Budget Officer would have authority to have greater access to documentation.
That is exactly what my private member's bill would do. However, we do not need a private member's bill to make this change for the Parliamentary Budget Officer. It could be included as a recommendation to this report. We have added it as a supplementary recommendation. It ought to be included, and the government can make that a reality.
The current mandate of the PBO includes providing independent research and analysis to government on the government's estimates and financial management. In fact, it has been the PBO that has had groundbreaking reports that have been more accurate than the government's own numbers.
A case in point is the work the PBO did on the F-35s. It was through his office, as opposed to the government, that parliamentarians first became aware that the cost estimates by the government for the F-35 procurement program were wildly off the mark, to the tune of billions of dollars. It was the PBO who alerted Parliament, and therefore Canadians, that this was a problem. The accounting the government was providing to Canadians was very different from its own internal accounting by billions of dollars. In fact, it was the PBO's numbers that were accurate, and the numbers the government was issuing publicly were not.
Similarly, there was the PBO's costing of the impact of the government's crime bills and what they would mean in terms of greater costs for the criminal justice system and greater costs for provinces due to greater incarceration rates. The PBO's numbers have, in fact, been more accurate in that regard.
In the accounting for our military engagements, the PBO has been very helpful as well.
When the Parliamentary Budget Officer comes before the finance committee, he is able to tell us more accurately, and I believe more frankly than the government, the impact of budget decisions. For example, when the PBO came before the finance committee this spring to talk about the impact of the government's budget, he told the finance committee that the austerity decisions, the cuts being made to programs and services by the government, would be a drag on the overall economy, would lead to greater unemployment and would reduce the GDP of Canada.
Sadly, that is what has been happening where governments have been pursuing austerity measures in countries around the world. We are seeing Europeans belatedly coming to the realization that many of the cuts they are making to budgets are creating more of a drag on their economies and increasing unemployment in those areas.
The PBO has been very frank and very helpful, and for his efforts he has been the target of significant criticism and attack by government members. When the PBO came before the finance committee, government members have been excessively aggressive and dismissive, which is unfortunate because of the valuable information he has been able to provide.
We just heard from a professor from the University of Victoria. There are other witnesses who gave similar testimony. We heard from Dr. Joachim Werner, associate professor of public policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science. His recommendation was:
—to protect and enhance the role of the Parliamentary Budget Officer. A number of countries are creating similar institutions, and the Parliament in Canada has really been at the cusp of this development. Internationally, the Parliamentary Budget Officer of Canada is very highly regarded, and it's certainly a major change, in my view, at least, in the degree the parliament in Canada has access to an independent, highly professional research capacity.
He was very complimentary. However, he said:
I believe that some adjustments are possible to the legal framework for the Parliamentary Budget Officer. In particular, this role could be strengthened, or the status be strengthened, if he were a full officer of Parliament.
In that regard, we on this side have recommended that the government take immediate action to make the Parliamentary Budget Officer an officer of Parliament, and further that the Parliamentary Budget Officer be mandated to report to the Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates with respect to its estimates work.
We believe that this would help parliamentarians. It would help Canadians understand estimates. It would help us understand the budget process and it would enable the PBO to do the job that Canadians expect him to do and that he is endeavouring to do today. However, if he has to go to court to get the information he needs, then clearly something is broken in the process.
I see I do not have a lot of time left, but in concluding I note a section of the report from the committee that talks about the underlying principles of Canadian parliamentary financial procedures, going back to the days of the Magna Carta signed by King John of England in 1215. Basically it was recognized that when aid or supplies were required, the king needed to seek consent, not only to impose a tax but also for the manner in which the revenues from that tax would be spent. They proclaimed later on in 1295 that “what touches all should be approved by all”.
We contend that in order to be approved by all, it needs to be understood by all. Canadians need to know what we are debating, what the numbers represent, what the full significance is of the estimates in order to do our jobs and in order to be approved by all.
Strengthening Fiscal Transparency Act
December 8th, 2011 / 10:05 a.m.
Peggy Nash Parkdale—High Park, ON
moved for leave to introduce Bill C-381, An Act to amend the Parliament of Canada Act (Parliamentary Budget Officer).
Mr. Speaker, today I rise to introduce my private member's bill, an act to amend the Parliament of Canada Act (Parliamentary Budget Officer).
I am pleased to present this important legislation. I would like to thank my colleague from Rimouski-Neigette—Témiscouata—Les Basques for seconding the bill and for supporting efforts to promote transparency and accountability, which are so important to our role as members of Parliament.
The position of parliamentary budget officer was created in 2006 after the Liberal sponsorship scandal, as part of the Conservatives' commitment to government accountability. But despite their promise to create an independent parliamentary budget office, the Conservatives refused to grant the PBO the same independence and the same authority as other officers of Parliament, such as the Auditor General.
In accordance with the legislation, the PBO's appointment can be revoked at the discretion of the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister, and not Parliament, has the power to hire and dismiss the PBO. This restriction is not imposed on other officers of Parliament.
Canadians and their members of Parliament deserve to know the real costs of policies and laws, and the PBO must have enough power and independence to achieve this goal.
Canadians and their MPs deserve to hear about the real costs of policy and legislation, and the PBO must have sufficient power and independence to meet this goal. The bill would allow the PBO to operate independently with a budget to fulfill his or her mandate.
Canadians want the government to be held accountable. We must be focused on ensuring that fiscal transparency and accountability are standard operating procedure in Ottawa.
(Motions deemed adopted, bill read the first time and printed)