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 p.m.

NDP

The Chair Pat Martin

Dr. Franks.

4 p.m.

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

Dr. Ned Franks

The thing that interests me about the timing is that the expenditure budgets are usually set, I believe—and you should check this with the Treasury Board—by about the end of January at the latest. I don't know if that information was given to you by the Treasury Board, but I'd be surprised if it's any later than that.

I don't see any problem in having the budget speech at about that time when the government knows what it's spending. I don't see any reason why the estimates shouldn't have a regular time for being tabled, say, in February, and the budget speech is given at that time and then the estimates go on to the committees.

I think that would be just fine. I suspect the Treasury Board, Department of Finance, and Privy Council Office wouldn't agree with me on that. But I'm sure that some of the provinces do it closer to that schedule than the federal one.

4 p.m.

NDP

The Chair Pat Martin

Dr. Wehner, would you like to respond?

4 p.m.

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

Dr. Joachim Wehner

I think the case is really overwhelming that Parliament should have a minimum of three months to look at the standing proposals of the executive before the start of the fiscal year. There are a number of ways in which you can do that. Different parliaments have done this in the past or they have changed the system to achieve this.

Several legislatures have changed their fiscal year. This is quite easily done. It's not very hard to do. The U.S. Congress did that in the mid-1970s. Sweden did it in the mid-1990s. Germany did it a couple of times in the 20th century. These are not uncommon things. Each time the objective was to make sure there was enough time for Parliament to review the budget before the fiscal year started.

One option could easily be to say that the fiscal year will start on the first of July. You could maintain all your existing procedures and shift the fiscal year by a few months. This is what a number of countries have done in the past to achieve this. That is one option.

A second option, I would say, is maybe more gradual or incremental. This is the one that Professor Franks mentioned, which is an attempt to bring forward the tabling of the proposals. Some countries have tried this. We tried it in South Africa when I worked here. There the tabling was similarly late, as in Canada, and it is now taking place a few months earlier. But it is still not enough to ensure three months' scrutiny prior to the beginning of the fiscal year.

These are two options. In my opinion, it is—let me call it this way—a no-brainer. It's something that should be done.

4:05 p.m.

NDP

The Chair Pat Martin

That concludes your time, Alexandre. Thank you for the questioning.

Now for the government side, the Conservatives, we'll go to Jacques Gourde. You have five minutes, Jacques.

4:05 p.m.

Conservative

Jacques Gourde Lotbinière—Chutes-de-la-Chaudière, QC

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

I thank the two witnesses for having allowed us to benefit from their expertise.

My question is for both witnesses. The enormous amount of information in the votes and estimates is a big challenge in and of itself. Even if most of the time, the parliamentarians feel that the information is of a very high level, it is very difficult for us to make adequate judgments on the basis of the aggregate information that is submitted to us.

Firstly, how could this be improved?

Secondly, how could the financial information contained in the estimates be improved in order to allow parliamentarians to follow up on expenditures?

4:05 p.m.

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

Dr. Ned Franks

I couldn't get this working, and my French is not perfect, but I'll try to answer your question.

The one that interests me is the one on the information available to Parliament on the budget and how Parliament can criticize the budget.

I would offer a couple of thoughts on that. The budget process begins in the departments with, I would guess, and I could be corrected on this, not just 10 pages of information for every page in the expenditure estimates, which are well over 500 pages, but probably 100 pages, maybe even more, which Treasury Board and the departments work with to get the budget down. It's a major operation. Thousands of man-hours of time go into creating the budget estimates.

Parliament has a problem there. There are two sides to it.

One is that the information they have on the expenditure estimates is very limited compared to what's available to the government. The second, to make it very simple, is time and human resources. As I say, this is a huge process of going back and forth between departments and central agencies and producing an expenditure budget. There's a huge investment commitment on the budget when it's presented to Parliament.

The system has evolved. We live in it. The government and the departments themselves and the people involved inside are very resistant to changes from the parliamentary side, to the point that they're almost unheard of.

If Parliament—the House of Commons, of course—wants to look at this more closely and do something, Parliament should set up a schedule of devoting a large part of a committee's time or some committees' time to a budget over a couple of years to try to get to a point where they could influence it.

Within the vote structure there is no problem. Parliament can, within a vote, recommend changes and propose them. But they actually have to be approved by Parliament. There is nothing that constitutionally prevents Parliament there, except the very powerful feeling that exists within both the government and the departments that it's their money and their budget, not Parliament's.

4:10 p.m.

NDP

The Chair Pat Martin

Dr. Wehner.

4:10 p.m.

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

Dr. Joachim Wehner

I have certainly seen more highly aggregated estimates than in Canada, but I did look at the main estimates a few days ago, and at least you have program-level information, which I think is very good. I've seen estimates that include more detailed information below the program level, sub-programs, or whatever you may call them. I don't know if your estimates also include that information. I'm not closely acquainted with that, but there are different ways of presenting estimates, and having programs in the estimates is very important. One could add a level of detail to that on the next level below the program level.

It is also important for estimates to have medium-term figures in them. Of course, you approve budgets on an annual basis, but certainly, in my opinion, in a good set of estimates I would like to see information on past expenditure, the current budget year, and then three years or so out into the future, of which the first year is the budget year. That gives me a range of years that I can then use to query government; I can ask how a program is developing, what is driving spending changes in a particular program. These are some of the things that I'd like to see in a good set of estimates that is given to Parliament.

The level at which you appropriate money is then a second issue, and I have very strongly advocated also appropriating money at the program level. I believe this will also force government, to some degree, to engage more carefully with parliamentary committees, and maybe it will also lead parliamentary committees to ask more detailed questions about programs, because when you just approve the budget at the vote level, you say, “Executive or government, you can do whatever you want”, within very highly aggregated spending lines.

These are just some of the points I would make.

With regard to the last point that was raised on whether it is possible to better analyze the budget, here I can just make the point again that you are extremely fortunate among the OECD countries to have access to the Parliamentary Budget Office. Although this is a growing trend among OECD countries, we have about one-third of all OECD country legislatures having such a research capacity, and the two-thirds that lack it have much less possibility to analyze the budget proposal.

4:10 p.m.

NDP

The Chair Pat Martin

Thank you, Dr. Wehner.

That actually concludes your time, Jacques, but Dr. Franks wanted to add something to this before we move on.

4:10 p.m.

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

Dr. Ned Franks

The issue of program budgeting depends on the size of the unit or program that you want to have a budget for identified by Parliament, and compared with what used to exist in the United States, and I suspect still does, where much of the budgeting—perhaps I could be corrected here—is line item budgeting rather than program, we have the advantage of having the vote and sub-vote structure based and identified by programs.

It seems to me that one of the useful things this committee could do is invite the government to explain the difference between what it describes as a program budget and the current one and what the steps are to get from one to the other. I like our system of having votes that are part of a department's estimates, and then the allotments, which I would rather call sub-votes, within them, which should be identified by program.

It would be worthwhile for this committee to toss that to our Treasury Board to see if there's a middle ground between line item and satisfactory programming, or if we're at program budgets, or if we're partway there. That is a very important issue that we should look at.

4:15 p.m.

NDP

The Chair Pat Martin

I agree. Our analysts have taken note of that. We may get the Treasury Board back once we've heard from other witnesses like you, Dr. Franks.

We will then move on to the official oppositions.

Mathieu Ravignat, you have five minutes or thereabouts.

I will tell all committee members that we've been kind of loose with our time. We have a witness here from so far and he's sitting there in the middle of the night, so we really want to cut everybody a bit of slack here.

March 26th, 2012 / 4:15 p.m.

NDP

Mathieu Ravignat Pontiac, QC

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

I thank the witnesses for being here.

I am wondering about the state of democracy in Canada. As you know, Canadian democracy rests on the principle of responsible government. I am thinking of Confederation and the development of responsible government. I am not at all impugning the responsibility of the Conservative government; I am talking about the concept of responsible government.

The process is extremely complex and the information, in my opinion, lacks precision. I wonder if it has become an empty ritual and whether the very principle of responsible government hasn't been undermined for years. As a Canadian, this concerns me greatly and also concerns the citizens of my riding.

Have things reached such a pass that the concentration of power and the Canadian government's focus on economic decisions are causing a democratic crisis?

4:15 p.m.

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

Dr. Ned Franks

I think it's a crisis that has existed since 1867.

4:15 p.m.

Voices

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