Evidence of meeting #37 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

  • Robert Marleau  Former Clerk of the House of Commons, As an Individual
  • John Williams  Chief Executive Officer, Global Organization of Parliamentarians Against Corruption, As an Individual

4:45 p.m.

NDP

Alexandre Boulerice Rosemont—La Petite-Patrie, QC

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Mr. Williams, thank you for your knowledgeable presentation. We are hearing from some outstanding witnesses today.

I also appreciated this overview of the signing of the Magna Carta, which led to the creation of parliamentarism. That's also a reminder that Parliament was created to do what we are no longer able to do today. I'm talking about the auditing of expenditures. My questions for you will be very similar to the ones I put to previous witnesses.

Since you represent an international organization, I will take advantage of your knowledge to ask you this. Can we find comfort in comparing ourselves to others, or is Canada cutting a sorry figure, on the international stage, when it comes to parliamentarians' capacity to audit and control the federal government's expenditures?

4:50 p.m.

Chief Executive Officer, Global Organization of Parliamentarians Against Corruption, As an Individual

John Williams

I have two things in response, Mr. Chair.

As you know, Canada is a beacon for the world, and long may it continue to be a beacon for the world as far as democracy is concerned. Also, in many ways, when you look closely, it's perhaps not as vibrant and robust a year as it should be.

Parliament has the authority. Have no doubt that Parliament is the supreme institution of the land, if you want it to be that way. Therefore, there is nothing outside your capacity if you, collectively, as a Parliament, decide to do this.

You have the power, collectively, if you use it.

4:50 p.m.

NDP

Alexandre Boulerice Rosemont—La Petite-Patrie, QC

It makes me think of somebody saying not to let anybody tell you that you can't do that—I like the spirit.

There is some skepticism—if not pessimism—when it comes to the outcome of the study we are currently conducting. It is an important study, but it is not the first of its kind. You are familiar with the 1998 study—the recommendations that came to nothing—and the 2003 study, which does not appear to have changed the system.

We are under the impression that, even if we came to a unanimous agreement—which happens sometimes, but not very often—if the executive branch is not willing to change things and wants to maintain control.... When something is shrouded in much mystery, parliamentarians have little power and, in the end, the government has practically all the weapons on its side. Even if we agreed and produced a nice unanimous report, if the Office of the Prime Minister blocked....

What do you think is needed to really bring about some positive changes?

4:50 p.m.

Chief Executive Officer, Global Organization of Parliamentarians Against Corruption, As an Individual

John Williams

I would like to see the estimates committee, first of all, collectively study the mandate you now have in the Standing Orders under 108(3)(c), which is wide-ranging and virtually limitless. You can look at everything the government spends. You do not really need a change in the Standing Orders.

Then don't get caught up in this confidence convention. Program spending is now within your mandate.

Mr. Marleau, the previous witness, said to set out a five-year plan. The business of supply report said not a five-year plan but decide if you're going to look at any specific program of spending the government does. Then you can ask through the House that an evaluation be done by the experts. The Parliamentary Budget Office has now appeared on the scene since this report was written.

There is a discipline called program evaluation that can give you a report of something of this magnitude on a particular program, asking four questions. One, what is the mission this program is designed to achieve within the country? Two, is it performing and fulfilling that mandate? Three, it is doing it efficiently and well? Four, is there a better way to do the same things? These are simple, fundamental questions that are long ranging in their application and do not invoke confidence. If you can get the professionals, the program evaluators, to give you a report of this magnitude on a program, you as a Parliament can now become engaged and make recommendations to the government that it would listen to going forward. Therefore, you can be very effective, in my opinion, if you act as a collegial committee moving forward in examining pieces of government spending in detail.

4:50 p.m.

NDP

Alexandre Boulerice Rosemont—La Petite-Patrie, QC

Thank you.

4:50 p.m.

NDP

The Chair Pat Martin

You've got about 30 seconds, if you like.

4:50 p.m.

NDP

Alexandre Boulerice Rosemont—La Petite-Patrie, QC

As we have some time, I would like you to talk about problems caused by the very long and somewhat absurd cycle of spending authorization.

Owing to that cycle, when we study the main estimates, we cannot compare that document with anything, since supplementary estimates (A), (B) and (C) have not been published yet, and there is also no connection with the budget document—the budget—put forward by the Minister of Finance. We study the main estimates, but we cannot compare that document with anything else. It's a bit like comparing apples and oranges. It is a difficult process.

4:55 p.m.

Chief Executive Officer, Global Organization of Parliamentarians Against Corruption, As an Individual

John Williams

Don't get caught up with the budget. I agree with Mr. Marleau. It's a separate document, a policy document.

But the plans and priorities now give you three years going on, so that you get this year's proposed spending in context. I made mention in my statement that the departmental performance reports, which are the historical reporting against the budget with three years of historical information, should be comparable to the plans and priorities—one saying where they were going and the other one saying if they actually went where they said they were going. I called these departmental performance reports self-serving fluff, which is why the Office of the Auditor General developed a methodology for auditing them to ensure it gives Parliament the information it needs.

So you have six years of forward and retrospective numbers. This gives you the capacity to make the analysis in order to ensure the programs are effective. Coupled with program evaluation, I think it can be done if you work collegially as a committee.

4:55 p.m.

NDP

The Chair Pat Martin

Thank you, Alexandre.

Next is Kelly Block for the Conservatives.

April 2nd, 2012 / 4:55 p.m.

Conservative

Kelly Block Saskatoon—Rosetown—Biggar, SK

Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.

I also want to thank you for being with us today, Mr. Williams. I've appreciated your presentation as well as the presentation just before you. I know you were here for part of it.

You were a member of Parliament for 15 years, and you served as the chair of the public accounts committee as well as being—I think you mentioned—a member of the subcommittee on the business of supply of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs.

I want to pick up on one of the last statements you made in response to my colleague's question. You said, “if you work collegially as a committee”. Recently we heard from a former member of Parliament, Joe Jordan, that the estimates process is a terrible partisan mechanism for trying to embarrass the government, especially when ministers come to committee to present their estimates.

Throughout this study we've come to understand that we're in a partisan environment. You yourself said there's no gain for the pain when it comes to doing the work we need to do.

How do we change that culture?

4:55 p.m.

Chief Executive Officer, Global Organization of Parliamentarians Against Corruption, As an Individual

John Williams

I think you change the culture by changing the focus of the committee. Change the focus of the committee to evaluating programs, rather than looking at the estimates that have to go through the House by June—confidence applies, the government is standing absolutely firm, you beat your head, and nothing moves. If you change that to looking at programs and the efficiency and effectiveness of those programs going on for three or five years, it's not that dissimilar to what Mr. Marleau was talking about with the five-year plan.

As an example I'll use something that's in the debate right now—the retirement age and the qualification for OAS that will come in over a number of years. There is no confidence attached to having an opinion on something that will be introduced down the road. So you can have your say on that and any other program you desire to comment on, given the fact that you have the program evaluators giving you the technical details.

It's all political today because you have no details, so you take political swipes at the minister, who takes a political swipe back, and nothing changes. But if you are discussing intellectually some detail of a program that's maybe not as well focused as it could be or should be, or not as well managed as it could be, you have something intelligent to contribute.

4:55 p.m.

Conservative

Kelly Block Saskatoon—Rosetown—Biggar, SK

Okay. Thank you.

I don't know if you were here at the very beginning of Mr. Marleau's testimony, but he shared with us that he wanted to start by debunking some myths. If we agree with his suggestion that we do have enough information, that it is relevant to the work we do as parliamentarians, and that the timing of the introduction of the mains and the budget isn't an issue—and you've suggested we have a wide-ranging mandate—what are some of the first one or two steps we can take as a committee?

Out of the report that was tabled when you were on the subcommittee, this committee was formed. So what are the one or two first steps we could take as a committee?

4:55 p.m.

Chief Executive Officer, Global Organization of Parliamentarians Against Corruption, As an Individual

John Williams

I would say step back from this hard political position on the estimates of this year and decide, as a committee, that you're going to review some programs over the next three to five years—not that dissimilar to what Mr. Marleau was saying.

You'll find that this report, which was tabled in 1997, talked about program evaluation. What is a program designed to do for society anyway? Is it doing what it's supposed to do? Is it doing it effectively and being well managed? Is there a better way to achieve the same results?

When you have the answers to those four questions, those answers become a reasoned, intellectual examination of programs that are ongoing. I'm sure the government would welcome that, because we are in a period of fiscal austerity, and trying to ensure that government is focused and well managed. They would surely welcome a report from Parliament saying that some programs can be adjusted, or maybe even eliminated, improved, expanded, or whatever. Your opinion matters.

5 p.m.

Conservative

Kelly Block Saskatoon—Rosetown—Biggar, SK

Thank you.

5 p.m.

NDP

The Chair Pat Martin

You only had about 10 seconds left anyway, Kelly, so thank you.

Denis Blanchette, you have five minutes.