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 budget.

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

5:15 p.m.

Liberal

John McCallum Markham—Unionville, ON

Well, from my point of view, it's certainly too aggregated rather than not aggregated enough.

5:15 p.m.

NDP

The Chair Pat Martin

I'm afraid that uses up our five-minute allotment. We just have time to do our last speaker in this round. We'll hear from Bernard Trottier for five minutes.

Bernard.

March 26th, 2012 / 5:15 p.m.

Conservative

Bernard Trottier Etobicoke—Lakeshore, ON

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Thank you to our witnesses for coming in today.

I just want to build on John's point about the level of detail, but also on whether that level of detail is something that should be voted on. Or really, is it just a question of having a discussion on it and then reporting? It ties back to our centuries of tradition around the confidence convention, and obviously if something were voted on in a committee that could constitute lack of faith in the government, then the government should fall.

So is it appropriate to have some level of voting...? I guess I'll ask your opinion, Professor Franks, on whether it makes sense to have votes at all within a parliamentary committee that is looking at this. It could be the government operations and estimates committee or it could be another committee, a departmental committee. What are your thoughts on voting on estimates?

5:15 p.m.

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

Dr. Ned Franks

Prima facie, I don't see a problem, but ultimately the responsibility does not belong to the committee; it belongs to the House itself, and then the House itself has to realize that if it's changing a vote in a significant way, the government can treat this as a vote of confidence. So there are some unfortunate constitutional limits.

You might want to change it. You might want to say that every year there is a certain number of votes that can be changed and those will not be construed as votes of confidence.

5:15 p.m.

Conservative

Bernard Trottier Etobicoke—Lakeshore, ON

Part of that ties back to your earlier comment about all the associate members on the government side of this committee. I guess it comes down to how, as the government, it's difficult for us to lose a vote in the committee, because we're expected to win the votes, versus how the opposition can afford to lose votes, because normally they do lose votes on the committee....

5:15 p.m.

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

Dr. Ned Franks

That's a very Canadian way of looking at things. I'm sure my colleague on the screen will support this. In most parliaments, committees are not as rigidly partisan as they tend to get in Canada.

5:15 p.m.

Conservative

Bernard Trottier Etobicoke—Lakeshore, ON

Mr. Wehner, maybe you can describe the voting process as to whether there is a committee or a subcommittee within different parliaments that actually votes on spending estimates. Or do they just observe and comment on the estimates?

5:15 p.m.

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

Dr. Joachim Wehner

In many cases, the committees are tasked with preparing recommendations that respond to the government proposals, and then there is a vote on them on the floor of the House.

If you take, for example, the Swedish Parliament or the German Parliament, the finance committee—or the budget committee in the German case—makes many amendments every year, which are proposed to the House. When they come out of the committee, they are very rarely changed on the floor of the House. They represent a view that is usually accepted on the floor of the House.

Of course, the government usually is not against these amendments, or it allows them to happen. But it is also possible for the opposition to sometimes influence particular items. In many parliaments, you have some scope for cross-partisan cooperation.

Again, if it is possible, it's possible at committee level. I'm aware that the Westminster type of set-up tends to be extremely partisan, but if this space exists, it is at the committee level. It's even more important that the space not be diminished, for example, by the deemed rule or lack of time or things like that.

5:15 p.m.

Conservative

Bernard Trottier Etobicoke—Lakeshore, ON

Thank you. I have just one final question—

5:15 p.m.

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

Dr. Joachim Wehner

I just want to add one short observation, which is on the number of line items.

Certainly, if you look at international evidence, my impression is, and you could do a study of this if you wanted to, that the number of lines you appropriate—so not the estimates, but the appropriations—is at the very low end of the spectrum. No one here suggests that you should go all the way to the other extreme. The extreme I know is Turkey, which has more than 30,000 line items in the budget. Nobody wants that. But having, say, somewhere between 500 and 1,000, with some provisions for executive flexibility to move money within the limits, within the vote, during the financial year—the so-called virement or reallocation—without going back to Parliament, with, say, a 5% threshold or 10% threshold, does not really hinder the executive in any way. It just forces it to design meaningful programs.

This is something you should be entitled to as parliamentarians. The executive should put thought into its programs. I think that's a key message I would like leave you with.

5:20 p.m.

Conservative

Bernard Trottier Etobicoke—Lakeshore, ON

I have one final question, if I have some time, Mr. Chair.

Very quickly, Professor Wehner, you mentioned that a timeframe with a minimum of three months between presentation of the budget and voting on it would be appropriate. Presumably, in that three months, departments would have time to put together estimates, which we could call our “main estimates”.

Given technological changes, is there a possibility to compress that even further? I know that if you give a bureaucrat three months to do something, they'll take three months to do it. If you give them six weeks, maybe they'll be able to do something in six weeks. Is there something now with modern accounting systems and so on that would allow us to compress that timeframe, if we move toward your recommendation to have a timeline between the budget being presented and the beginning of the fiscal year?

5:20 p.m.

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

Dr. Joachim Wehner

Is your question referring to the scrutiny process within Parliament or to the formulation process in the executive?

5:20 p.m.

Conservative

Bernard Trottier Etobicoke—Lakeshore, ON

In a way, it's both.

I sense that you want to have estimates before the beginning of the fiscal year, so you want to introduce a budget well ahead of the beginning of the fiscal year. I want to explore whether a minimum of three months could be made even shorter, based on your experience in some other parliaments perhaps or maybe some insight you have into the process.

5:20 p.m.

NDP

The Chair Pat Martin

Could we have a very brief answer, please, Dr. Wehner?

5:20 p.m.

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

Dr. Joachim Wehner

I think sometimes it's like wine: it takes time. If you want good wine, you need to give it time to mature.

I think three months really is a minimum standard already. If you look at the U.S. Congress, they get the budget eight months prior to the beginning of the fiscal year. Germany gets it five months before. So three months really is not excessive. Within the legislature, I think a division of labour between committees can make the process more efficient. So instead of having just one committee to look at it, the fact that you have the sectoral committees dividing that task amongst them is already potentially a way of making it more efficient.