Evidence of meeting #35 for Government Operations and Estimates in the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was estimates.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

  • Ned Franks  Professor Emeritus, Department of Political Studies, Queen's University, As an Individual
  • Joachim Wehner  Associate Professor, Public Policy, London School of Economics and Political Science, As an Individual

4:50 p.m.

NDP

The Chair Pat Martin

Professor Franks, would you like to respond?

4:50 p.m.

Professor Emeritus, Department of Political Studies, Queen's University, As an Individual

Dr. Ned Franks

I think it was a very good question, and it was a very good answer, except that we're going to need two reporting agencies there. One would be the Department of Finance on the overall income outgo picture, and the second would be the Treasury Board on the expenditure side. It might be something that we could ask the Parliamentary Budget Officer to produce in conjunction with those two departments every quarter. I think it would be a wonderful thing to do.

4:50 p.m.

NDP

The Chair Pat Martin

Excellent; this is really interesting.

We now go to Ron Cannan, for the Conservatives.

4:50 p.m.

Conservative

Ron Cannan Kelowna—Lake Country, BC

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Thanks to our witnesses. I do appreciate you sharing your wisdom and experience.

Mr. Franks, in your presentation you referred to the 1995 report. That was a 92-page report, with 49 recommendations. To maybe help make it more efficient, out of those 49 recommendations, are there some there that...? As you said, very few of the recommendations were implemented. Instead of reinventing the report, maybe we should just take that report and implement the recommendations.

Are the recommendations still pertinent today?

4:50 p.m.

Professor Emeritus, Department of Political Studies, Queen's University, As an Individual

Dr. Ned Franks

Yes. On the other hand, what we have in the reform process in Canada is what you might call a “fractured” dialogue. A bunch of MPs get in, whose tenure, as I say, is less than 10 years, and they're dissatisfied with the estimates process. They produce a report, with often good ideas. Then there's an election, and another bunch comes in. Seven years later, they're dissatisfied, and another report comes. This is the third of those.

I mean, apart from going to a different system of electing people—some kind of proportional representation that would guarantee longer tenure for many MPs—I think the thing you have to do here is simply direct yourselves to how you as MPs feel now. What are you least comfortable about in your role as overseers of the public purse, and what would you like to see changed? It might be more detail in the estimates, or it might be quarterly reports that would make you feel much more comfortable—vote by vote, for that matter, although one must recognize that within government, there is no assumption made that the expenditure in a vote will be quarter by quarter; in fact they can have widely varying amounts per quarter.

I think there are a lot of things like that that you could do and propose. I think it's the stick-with-it-iveness that your committee can manifest before the next election that will determine what comes out of this.

4:50 p.m.

Conservative

Ron Cannan Kelowna—Lake Country, BC

I know that several of us in Parliament have spent years in and around municipal council tables and regional districts in different levels of government. Then, when we come here, we try to find what is the role of the parliamentarian—oversight versus micromanaging—as well, and I think that's one of the aspects you alluded to: the level of comfort.

As we talked about before, people get this big book, look at it, and aren't even sure where to start. They set it down and move on to something else to review where they can feel at least some sense of consciousness.

We're hoping to have something, for our future parliamentarians as well, that's a little bit more understandable. From the comments, we could look at maybe going to the program-based. We had Treasury Board officials saying they have that information; it's available. So we could go to that rather than output-based appropriation of votes to approval of programs.

4:55 p.m.

Professor Emeritus, Department of Political Studies, Queen's University, As an Individual

Dr. Ned Franks

I worry a little about that, because the votes and the sub-votes, or the allotments, to a large extent mirror the program structure of government. They don't mirror the purposes of government, but in terms of the program structure as delivered by departments, there's a pretty decent connection between the two.

I could see it being more detailed in the estimates, but then we get into the problem of whether or not you'll drown in detail. I mean, when the estimates used to be considered on the floor of the House, in committee of the whole, the questions used to be something like this: “Mr. Minister, last year you spent $2,500 on X. This year you're proposing to spend $3,500. Can you account for that difference?” It wasn't terribly helpful.

So I think you really have to focus on what you think members of Parliament can do, what size they'd be comfortable with.

4:55 p.m.

Conservative

Ron Cannan Kelowna—Lake Country, BC

I agree; it's important to find that balance.

Professor Wehner, you talked about the British Parliament right now, and I think you said it's probably doing the worst job of any Westminster government in oversight of budgets or estimates.

Can you elaborate on that comment?

4:55 p.m.

Associate Professor, Public Policy, London School of Economics and Political Science, As an Individual

Dr. Joachim Wehner

I think if you look at some of the variables I talked about, the Westminster Parliament really is at a severe disadvantage. Amendment powers are the same as in your House of Commons. Parliament can only reduce existing items. The last time the government was defeated on estimates was in 1919, when the Lord Chancellor was denied funding for a second bathroom. So that was a long, long time ago, 80 or 90 years ago.

The budget is routinely approved late. What happens in the meantime is that the government starts implementing its budget proposal. It's a system that puts Parliament at a disadvantage. The estimates are extremely high-level, in particular with big departments at the vote level, where many, many billions of pounds are appropriated in a single line. It effectively means that the executive can adjust the budget during the fiscal year in almost any way it likes. It can withhold the money, because British-style appropriations are only upper limits; they don't oblige the actual disbursement of these funds. That is up to the treasury's discretion. It's an upper limit at a very high level of aggregation, which means that a lot of money can be moved during the fiscal year.

You have the disadvantages of timing. In the British House of Commons, it's one of the very few parliaments in the OECD that does not have a specialized budget committee. There are only three or four parliaments within the OECD community where the legislature does not have a specialized finance or budget committee. There is a treasury select committee, but it is departmentally focused. It is not a finance or budget committee. Finally, they do not have a very extensive budget research capacity.

So on several of these counts, on several of these variables, the situation in Canada is actually already better. There is more for committee infrastructure. There is the Parliamentary Budget Officer. I think in many ways you already have a more useful set of estimates than the House of Commons in the United Kingdom gets at the moment.

5 p.m.

NDP

The Chair Pat Martin

That is very interesting.

Thank you, Ron.

Members, before I go to Alexandre Boulerice again, I think we'll have to make sure that we keep it to five minutes for questions and answers if we're going to finish our list in the 15 minutes we have remaining.

You have five minutes, Alexandre.

5 p.m.

NDP

Alexandre Boulerice Rosemont—La Petite-Patrie, QC

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

My first question is for Professor Wehner.

You indicated in your document that we could enhance the independence of the parliamentary budget officer, notably by upgrading his status to that of a full-fledged officer of Parliament. I think that is an excellent suggestion.

You say this afterwards: “Moreover, steps should be taken to ensure full access to all relevant information.”

Why did you think it advisable that measures be taken to ensure that the parliamentary budget officer has access to all of the data?

5 p.m.

Associate Professor, Public Policy, London School of Economics and Political Science, As an Individual

Dr. Joachim Wehner

We have just completed, as part of an OECD study, a review of independent fiscal institutions in OECD countries. Amongst these institutions was the Parliamentary Budget Officer of Canada. I have also followed a little bit over the past few years the work of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, not in extensive detail, but I have kept a bit in touch with it.

From this work, I am aware that on occasion there have been requests for information from departments where the information has not been furnished, and then letters posted on the website of the Parliamentary Budget Officer that are essentially the responses from government departments to such requests for information.

I think that despite the provisions in the law, the Parliamentary Budget Officer should get information for free and should get the information he needs to undertake his work properly. I believe there have been some problems in this area.

5 p.m.

NDP

Alexandre Boulerice Rosemont—La Petite-Patrie, QC

Thank you.

Beyond a certain date, the estimates are deemed to have been approved by a committee. You suggest, Mr. Wehner, that that practice be abolished. For your part, Mr. Franks, you do not like that process but you think it should be maintained.

I would like to hear you debate this. Should we, yes or no, maintain this procedure? Convince me.

5 p.m.

Professor Emeritus, Department of Political Studies, Queen's University, As an Individual

Dr. Ned Franks

Shall I begin on that? I could get something off my chest.

Before the current system existed, back in the dark old days of the 1960s, there was sometimes a risk in minority parliaments that the budget wouldn't ever get passed. It did, finally. Sometimes the estimates would be approved after the fiscal year was over. It was to avoid this that the deeming factor came in.

Now, maybe there should be a longer period between the time the estimates are introduced and the budgets are deemed passed. I would be comfortable with that. That I think is perfectly possible. But knowing what one might call the rampant partisanship in minority parliaments that we have seen in the past—not to suggest that modern MPs are like those of earlier generations, but it's perfectly possible—I think we need that deeming thing in there as a protection against just pure bloody-minded obstruction and the refusal to pass budgets in minority parliaments.

5 p.m.

NDP

Alexandre Boulerice Rosemont—La Petite-Patrie, QC

Mr. Wehner.