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

4:15 p.m.

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

Dr. Ned Franks

We do have a problem.

You might look at this as a criticism of yourselves, and I don't really mean it, but a big part of the problem of the weakness of Parliament vis-à-vis the executive is the dominance of parties over almost every aspect of an MP's existence. That's not the private side in dealing with the constituents, but who participates in committees, in question period, who gets to talk during a debate, and so on. If you're a bad boy, you don't go on a foreign trip because the whips want to punish you.

If I were to suggest the one obstacle to a collective voice from Parliament in looking at things like the budget and making even minor changes, it's that dominance of party and the control that party exercises over the parliamentary activities of members. I don't know how to break that, and I'm sure you could tell me far better than I can how you might do that.

4:15 p.m.

NDP

The Chair Pat Martin

Interesting.

Dr. Wehner.

4:15 p.m.

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

Dr. Joachim Wehner

I don't want to become too normative. I said in my opening remarks that some of these things about the right balance of power between the executive and the legislature are really questions that are normative and reflect a certain view of how politics should be structured. But let me nonetheless give you some food for thought, which I think is in the spirit of your question.

The first point I would make is that in Westminster-type systems, parliaments used to make changes to the budget and be more active in making decisions on public spending. Even in the U.K., for example, which nowadays is maybe the weakest parliament of the OECD countries on scrutiny of public expenditure, until about 1920 the parliaments very routinely made changes to executive spending proposals. Then somehow this practice emerged of not doing it anymore.

I don't think there's anything inherent in the constitutional model of the Westminster government that says Parliament cannot play a more active role in scrutinizing the budget and even making changes to it. Quite clearly, historically it did that for a very long time, in fact.

The second point I would make is that even within the Westminster-type setting—which I think you very appropriately characterize as being extremely biased toward executive authority and executive power in economic policy-making—we are seeing a shift. The shift is not only in one or two countries; it is taking place in several countries. You can see it, for example, in the creation of legislative budget officers in Australia, South Africa, and Canada. These are Westminster-type countries. They are strengthening legislative scrutiny. You can see new committees, for example, or the changes I mentioned earlier to amendment powers in New Zealand and South Africa, which also has a Westminster-type system.

So there's a history of more proactive parliamentary involvement in economic policy-making. There's nothing inherent in the constitutional model that would prevent this. Second, I think there's a broad international trend, and I don't see why the Canadian Parliament couldn't at least reposition itself a bit more toward legislative scrutiny of the budget and a greater role in setting the budgets.

4:20 p.m.

NDP

The Chair Pat Martin

That's your time, Matthew. Thank you.

For the Conservatives we have Kelly Block for five minutes.

4:20 p.m.

Conservative

Kelly Block Saskatoon—Rosetown—Biggar, SK

Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.

I want to thank you as well for being with us today.

We've been doing this study for a few weeks, and we've had many witnesses make similar observations to those you have made here today, recognizing that some of these processes have been in place for over a century, and studies have been undertaken and recommendations have been made, but not too many changes have resulted.

I want to go back to some of the comments that were made after my colleague asked questions about democracy. You noted that this has been an issue since 1867. I guess it's about partisanship. I'm going to ask you to comment a little on that.

A former Liberal member of Parliament, Mr. Joe Jordan, testified to this committee. I believe he was parliamentary secretary to the President of the Treasury Board for a time. Mr. Jordan made the following comment. I want to quote it and then perhaps get both of your thoughts on the issue of partisanship.

The estimates and supply process is a terrible, partisan mechanism for trying to embarrass the government, but it could be a very useful mechanism if MPs saw it as a way to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of government operations.

I'd like you to comment on that. Do you think there are ways we can make this process less partisan, more efficient, and more effective?

4:20 p.m.

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

Dr. Ned Franks

I think you need a rebellion in the caucus to do that, though I can offer some moderately serious things.

I don't think there should be the number of associate members of committees that there are. Now this is one of the best committees in Parliament, and most of you come to most of the meetings, but I believe I'm correct in saying that the NDP has something like three associate members on this committee, the Bloc has very few, the Liberals have very few, and the Conservatives have more than 120. Every member of the caucus who isn't a member of the committee or who isn't a cabinet minister, including the parliamentary secretaries, is an associate member of a committee.

I think the rules of the House of Commons should be looked at to the point that you can feel reasonably confident, if you're on a committee, that the whip isn't going to take you off if he doesn't like you or you don't do what you're told; that you're here for the full time, maybe even for a full Parliament; and that as associates you'd just have a limited number, not every member of the caucus. I have wanted to see that for a long time.

One of the real problems I find, in looking at committees and what they do—even if it's a committee that I go before, say, three times in a year—is that there are always new members. The thing you want to have in an effective committee is a corporate sense that you're not there for your party, but you're there for the people of Canada and the constituents and to work with your colleagues to produce the best thing you can for Canada, regardless of your party's views. Tell your party leaders to keep out of it.

That's an ideal. They've done it in England in their smaller committees, and they have an amazing history of it. But it's a totally different world. The average stay in Parliament for a member in Canada is a little over seven years, from seven to ten years. The average stay in Britain in almost triple that. I don't know about South Africa. But we do have that very real problem of the resources and the pressures on human resources and the pressures on MPs that tend to reduce the ability to produce a cohesive committee, except in very select circumstances.

4:25 p.m.

Conservative

Kelly Block Saskatoon—Rosetown—Biggar, SK

Okay.

Mr. Wehner, would you like to comment?

4:25 p.m.

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

Dr. Joachim Wehner

Well, I think you've raised an important point, and it is that we can talk about institutional features, but at the end of the day what Parliament does is part of the political system and political dynamics, and these give rise to certain behaviour, which can be highly partisan or sometimes less partisan in some countries.

I have, however, seen parliaments in other countries that also have parliamentary systems, where you see occasionally at least much more of a cross-partisan approach in committees in particular. So if it is possible, it is possible in committees. This is the one big point I would make, and I also second Professor Franks on this.

I will just give you one nice example, which I really like, from the German budget committee in the German Parliament. They were having their budget hearings a few years ago and they heard that instead of attending the hearing in the budget committee, the finance minister was hanging out in the press gallery. When the committee heard this, they cut $500 million Deutschmark, at the time, from his budget—half a billion Deutschmark is not an insubstantial sum—which he wanted to use to renovate his customs offices.

That kind of approach...you're not doing it to score party political points, but you are really doing it to hold government to account. You can see a kind of cross-partisan spirit in that.

I think that is only possible in committees. One of the ways in which some committees foster this kind of approach is through rapporteur systems, where you give groups of MPs the task to scrutinize a particular part of the budget, and these MPs come from different political parties and they try to come up with a consensus view on this. Some committees in other OECD countries operate along these lines.

But as you said in your introduction, these broader political dynamics are very difficult to change, so they often are what they are, unfortunately, sometimes.

4:25 p.m.

Conservative

Kelly Block Saskatoon—Rosetown—Biggar, SK

Thank you.

4:25 p.m.

NDP

The Chair Pat Martin

Thank you, Kelly. We're well over time.

Now for the Liberal Party. John McCallum, you have five minutes.

March 26th, 2012 / 4:25 p.m.

Liberal

John McCallum Markham—Unionville, ON

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

I, too, would like to welcome our two experts. I guess my line of questioning is a little bit similar to what you've already heard.

We've heard a number of proposals, and people seem to agree on the direction we should go. Let me take the very simplest one, which is the timing. Dr. Wehner referred to this as a no-brainer. It would not be difficult, I don't think.

You said, Professor Franks, you could have the budget in February. Let's say you change the fiscal year so it ends on June 30, just for an example. You would have more than three months there. I can't see how that would reduce the power of the executive relative to Parliament, just that one little change. Many other countries have done it.

I guess my first question would be to Professor Franks. Is there any downside of that timing change, and if not, is it only the institutional inertia that is stopping it, or is there some good logical reason why Professor Wehner may be wrong and why perhaps it isn't such a no-brainer?

4:30 p.m.

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

Dr. Ned Franks

I think it's a very good idea, but I find every proposal for reforming committees, with some exceptions, in the Canadian House of Commons foundering on the reefs and rocks of partisanship. The one exception I can think of was the decision of the public accounts committee to go against the government and recommend the implementation of the accounting officer approach to responsibility in the accounts. That one fascinated me. It was one of my pet peeves.

4:30 p.m.

Liberal

John McCallum Markham—Unionville, ON

We got a letter from the President of the Treasury Board, Tony Clement, who seemed to be encouraging us to do this study and who seemed to be making some noises consistent with what you are proposing. I can't see that this timing issue would cause the government to quake in its boots about losing power to us MPs.

You still haven't really answered my question. Why can we not make it happen?

4:30 p.m.

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

Dr. Ned Franks

It's not for me to answer why you can't. I think if you as a committee believe in it, make the proposal. Recommend it. Then make sure that your report is debated in the House. I believe you could bring up that one single thing as a private member's motion. Do it. I'd love to see something like that come out of this committee, truly.

4:30 p.m.

Liberal

John McCallum Markham—Unionville, ON

Thank you.

Professor Wehner, do you have anything to add to that, or comments?