Evidence of meeting #70 for Finance in the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site.) The winning word was clauses.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

  • Gordon Boissonneault  Senior Advisor, Economic Analysis and Forecasting Division, Demand and Labour Analysis, Economic and Fiscal Policy Branch, Department of Finance
  • Sue Foster  Acting Director General, Policy, Appeals and Quality, Service Canada
  • Margaret Strysio  Director, Strategic Planning and Reporting, Parks Canada Agency
  • Stephen Bolton  Director, Border Law Enforcement Strategies Division, Public Safety Canada
  • Michael Zigayer  Senior Counsel, Criminal Law Policy Section, Department of Justice
  • Garry Jay  Chief Superintendent, Acting Director General, HR Workforce Programs and Services, Royal Canadian Mounted Police
  • Jeff Hutcheson  Director, HQ Programs and Financial Advisory Services, Coporate Management and Comptrollership, Royal Canadian Mounted Police
  • Darryl Hirsch  Senior Policy Analyst, Intelligence Policy and Coordination, Department of Public Safety
  • Ian Wright  Executive Advisor, Financial Markets Division, Financial Sector Policy Branch, Department of Finance
  • Nigel Harrison  Manager, Legislative and Parliamentary Affairs, Department of Fisheries and Oceans
  • David Lee  Director, Office of Legislative and Regulatory Modernization, Policy, Planning and International Affairs Directorate, Health Products and Food Branch, Department of Health
  • Anthony Giles  Director General, Strategic Policy, Analysis and Workplace Information Directorate, Department of Human Resources and Skills Development
  • Bruno Rodrigue  Chief, Income Security, Federal-Provincial Relations and Social Policy Branch, Department of Finance
  • Gerard Peets  Senior Director, Strategy and Planning Directorate, Department of Industry
  • Suzanne Brisebois  Director General, Policy and Operations, Parole Board of Canada, Public Safety Canada
  • Louise Laflamme  Chief, Marine Policy and Regulatory Affairs, Department of Transport
  • Judith Buchanan  Acting Senior Manager, Labour Standards Operations, Human Resources and Skills Development Canada
  • Mark Hodgson  Senior Policy Analyst, Labour Markets, Employment and Learning, Department of Finance
  • Stephen Johnson  Director General, Evaluation Directorate, Strategic Policy and Research Branch, Department of Human Resources and Skills Development
  • James McNamee  Deputy Director, Horizontal Immigration Policy Division, Department of Citizenship and Immigration
  • Graham Barr  Director General, Transition Planning and Coordination, Shared Services Canada

3:35 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair James Rajotte

I call this meeting to order. This is the 70th meeting of the Standing Committee on Finance. Our orders today are pursuant to the order of reference of Monday, May 14, 2012. We are studying the bill.

Colleagues, as you know, we dealt with parts 1, 2, and 3 yesterday at clause-by-clause consideration. We have part 4 to do this afternoon and this evening. We are therefore going to start with clause 170, as you see in front of you on your agenda.

I will just remind you that we will finish once we get to clause 753. We will go back to clause 1. At that point, we have, as prescribed by the motion, until 11:59 tonight for discussion on these clauses, at which point I will have to put all the votes on any outstanding clauses.

I thought, colleagues, it would be easiest to proceed in the way we proceeded in terms of our discussion of the bill. That was to do part 4 by division. I will identify the clauses for that division and then have debate over the division as a whole. Obviously, we have officials here if there are any questions by members. I think that's an easier way to proceed. I am strongly suggesting we do so in that measure.

I know we have the five-minute rule with respect to clauses, but I would ask members to allow me to be a little flexible with the timeline. I don't think we'll use five minutes per clause, but I think on one division we should allow a little more flexibility than five minutes if one party wishes to make a number of points. I will just remind you to make your points as best as possible to the clauses and the subject matter therein. I will obviously be as respectful toward colleagues as possible.

Therefore, I will start with division 1. Division 1 deals with measures with respect to the Auditor General of Canada. It includes clauses 170 to 204. I am looking for discussion.

I will go to Mr. Marston, please.

June 5th, 2012 / 3:35 p.m.

NDP

Wayne Marston Hamilton East—Stoney Creek, ON

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Welcome back, Mr. Boissonneault.

Mr. Chair, when we first got the documentation on this, there had been a lot of discussion about the fact that old age security hadn't been talked about and that those changes weren't even raised in the last election. We looked at changes to employment insurance, and again, they hadn't been talked about, nor were the kinds of changes regarding the environment that are proposed in this bill.

However, the ones that jump out at me are the clauses that will remove the Auditor General's oversight from a number of agencies. The government members on this committee will tell us, and from their perspective it may be true, that the Auditor General offered up these changes. Perhaps he did, but he did so because he was told he had to cut a certain amount of money out of his operating budget. If it were not for the budget cuts by this government, I doubt very much the Auditor General would have offered up these changes unless he was put into that position.

It's clear the government is prioritizing significant budget cuts across the board in the areas I already talked about. They're making that choice in this case over the oversight of government operations and government accountability.

I'm one of the people who came into this House in the 2006 election. During that election we repeatedly heard from the opposition, which is now the government, about accountability and transparency. All of this certainly flies in the face of those proclamations in that election. They pointed their fingers toward the previous government about the things that were hidden, the mismanagement, the sponsorship scandal, and all of the things in that area, and said they were a significant problem. We agreed. Our party said there had to be more accountability.

When the Conservatives formed government, there was supposed to be a breath of fresh air in this place, but with this omnibus bill they are trying to ram legislation through our Parliament in a fashion that we've not seen. Yes, there have been large bills before, but never as comprehensive in the changes they were making.

The really serious part of this, and I've expressed this in my frustration here several times, is that this is happening without allowing Canadians to comment. It's happening without giving MPs the opportunity to undertake the due diligence necessary to thoroughly examine it and the implications, not only for today's citizens but for future generations.

I'm no expert on the environment. I'm not on this committee because I'm an expert on the environment. When those kinds of things are put before us, the EI changes I know something about, and OAS I would know something about, but the comprehensive changes are very challenging for all of us.

However, reducing and in some cases eliminating the oversight of the Auditor General over the operations of government, as I've already said, flies in the face of everything the Conservatives purported to represent when they were running in 2006. People at that time put their faith in them. Who would have thought that this type of thing would happen?

At this point I'm going to reserve to come back into the discussion. I'll allow other people to get in, because I need to sit back for a moment.

3:35 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair James Rajotte

Okay, thank you.

I have Mr. Brison on this point.

3:35 p.m.

Liberal

Scott Brison Kings—Hants, NS

I have some other points on this.

I've actually participated in expenditure review processes as a minister and as a member of an expenditure review committee of cabinet. It's possible to be penny-wise and pound foolish, Mr. Chair. The reality is that investments in scrutiny and accountability and resources for the Auditor General or for the Parliamentary Budget Officer can yield significant savings to government. Reductions in these resources and commensurate reductions in scrutiny and accountability quite potentially will yield waste, because without that constant light being shone within any government, it's more difficult to ensure that respect is being given to every hard-earned tax dollar we receive in Ottawa.

I know the genesis of these decisions emanated from an expenditure review process whereby the Auditor General was told to come up with some savings. In that context, his office would have put forth areas that were deemed less of a priority than perhaps some other areas, but the reality is all of these areas are important. I'm going to go through some of these important agencies and councils and boards. It's not just a question of respect for tax dollars and ensuring good value for tax dollars. It's a question of performance. The vital oversight given and input garnered from these agencies is essential. The oversight by the Auditor General is important.

I think of something as essential as the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and issues around food safety. The idea of any move to reduce scrutiny of these agencies is penny-wise and pound foolish.

3:40 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair James Rajotte

Thank you.

We'll go to Mrs. McLeod, please.

3:40 p.m.

Conservative

Cathy McLeod Kamloops—Thompson—Cariboo, BC

Mr. Chair, we all understand that the Auditor General does incredibly important work, but I think Mr. Marston indicated at the very beginning that it was the Auditor General, not the government, who deemed that these audits were unnecessary.

The other important feature is that in October 2011, there was a letter to the chair of the public accounts committee, NDP member David Christopherson, and at that time the Auditor General's office announced their intention to seek these amendments. At that time they also made a case in terms of why these amendments would eliminate audits of lesser importance.

Mr. Boissonneault, is that portraying accurately what happened? Was there a response from the committee?

3:40 p.m.

Gordon Boissonneault Senior Advisor, Economic Analysis and Forecasting Division, Demand and Labour Analysis, Economic and Fiscal Policy Branch, Department of Finance

I do know that a letter was submitted to the standing committee, as you said. I'm not aware of any response from the committee.

3:40 p.m.

Conservative

Cathy McLeod Kamloops—Thompson—Cariboo, BC

If the committee had any concerns, since October, 2011, they have had significant and ample time to respond to this issue.

3:40 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair James Rajotte

Thank you, Mrs. McLeod.

I have Mr. Marston, Monsieur Caron, and Ms. Nash.

I'll start with Mr. Marston.

3:40 p.m.

NDP

Wayne Marston Hamilton East—Stoney Creek, ON

Thank you again.

We have expressed our concerns. Beyond the point of accountability, it's the case for transparency that was made in 2006. You have to consider what happened with the G-8 slush fund to be very concerned.

We had very serious concerns when the government announced its intentions to cut the auditing powers of the Auditor General. We had additional concerns when the Conservatives refused to allow the Auditor General to testify before a parliamentary committee. It's one thing to receive letters, but it's quite a different thing for a person to give face-to-face testimony. We questioned at the time why they wanted to silence a person responsible for ensuring that taxpayers' money is spent properly. Again, this is an affront to the very things they have purported to stand for.

One wonders why the government seems so intent on taking away the Auditor General's powers. This is the single largest move to restrict accountability in Bill C-38. It is a broad reduction of the oversight powers of the Auditor General.

Let's think about the significance of removing the mandatory oversight of financial reporting by 12 agencies. I'll name them: the Northern Pipeline Agency; the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, and people will give testimony about their fears of what impact that could mean; the Canada Revenue Agency; the Canadian Transport Accident Investigation and Safety Board; the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety; the Exchange Fund Account, which is under the Currency Act; the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada; the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada; the Canadian Polar Commission; and the Yukon Surface Rights Board. The member for Yukon is sitting beside me and will comment shortly.

3:45 p.m.

NDP

Dennis Bevington Western Arctic, NT

The Northwest Territories.

3:45 p.m.

NDP

Wayne Marston Hamilton East—Stoney Creek, ON

I was close. It's in the vicinity.

These cuts undermine a very critical role played by these trusted oversight bodies. I'm not suggesting in any way that there are problems with those particular bodies, but the Auditor General, that office, is intended to offer confidence to the Canadian people.

We had the CSIS inspector general and the National Energy Board, among many others.

The government is silencing institutional checks and balances on the government's ideology. From our perspective, we see that the government has an ideology that's contrary to what it said in 2006 about transparency and accountability.

The cuts call into question Canada's food inspection and public health regime by removing critical oversight powers of the Auditor General in relation to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, all while providing an avenue and paving the way for opportunities to privatize a number of essential inspection functions. We heard from witnesses about their concerns about farming out the inspections. They were quite sincere.

The Auditor General does important work on behalf of all Canadians to ensure that taxpayer money is spent wisely. Why are the Conservatives shutting this down?

The Conservatives' cuts to the Auditor General's office will mean one thing, and that's less accountability. Back in 2006, that was one of the primary reasons the Conservatives were successful in defeating the previous government.

I've said that we have faith in those listed agencies, but from time to time faith gets violated, and from time to time people get caught doing things they're not supposed to do. When it comes to financial accountability, the person who catches them is the Auditor General.

You have to ask yourself how this aligns with the purported accountability and transparency the government says they represent.

3:45 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair James Rajotte

Thank you.

Monsieur Caron.

3:45 p.m.

NDP

Guy Caron Rimouski-Neigette—Témiscouata—Les Basques, QC

Mr. Chair, I heard what Ms. McLeod suggested earlier. Yes, the Auditor General's office proposed those changes voluntarily and sent a letter to that effect. It even told the Standing Committee on Public Accounts in advance that it was going to voluntarily review those programs or audits. I was a member of that committee at the time.

But what is being left out of the story and what Ms. McLeod did not mention is that the Minister of Finance has himself sent a letter to the Auditor General or to his office asking him to comply as much as possible with the spirit of fiscal restraint, meaning the direction that the government was going to take. Therein lies the rub. We have reason to believe that the Auditor General would not have provided the list of programs or government agencies whose financial statements he would no longer audit, if the Minister of Finance's letter had instead suggested he carry on with the audits in the same way as before.

Clearly, if a letter from the Minister of Finance asks you to make changes—voluntarily, of course—and to conduct fewer audits, that is one thing. But getting a letter from the Minister of Finance asking you to conduct the audits as if the office were independent will have the opposite effect. The auditor is doing it independently, but at the suggestion of the Minister of Finance. We think that is problematic because parliamentary oversight organizations should be excluded from any government austerity measures. But that was not the case here.

3:50 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair James Rajotte

Okay. Merci.

I have Ms. Nash, and then Mrs. Glover, please.