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

April 2nd, 2012 / 3:30 p.m.

NDP

The Chair Pat Martin

We will call the meeting to order.

Welcome to the—

3:30 p.m.

NDP

Mathieu Ravignat Pontiac, QC

Mr. Chair, could I have a moment? I want to inform you and my committee colleagues that I plan to introduce the following motion, so that we can discuss it at the next committee meeting:

That, given the systemic problem of cost overruns for multiple military procurement contracts, the committee undertake a study on the military procurement process; invite the ministers responsible and several other witnesses to appear as part of this study as soon as possible; and report its findings and recommendations to the House.

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

3:30 p.m.

Conservative

Mike Wallace Burlington, ON

You say you're bringing that to the subcommittee, then? Is that correct...? Okay.

3:30 p.m.

NDP

The Chair Pat Martin

Okay. Thank you.

I'll finish opening the meeting, then, if that doesn't require any attention.

We welcome everyone to the 37th meeting of the Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates. We will continue our study on considering the estimates and supply processes.

Today we're very pleased and in fact very honoured to welcome as our guest and witness Robert Marleau, the former Clerk of the House of Commons, who is also the former Privacy Commissioner and former Information Commissioner. I know that he has a long-standing interest in and experience with all matters associated with estimates and supply.

We very much welcome you here, Mr. Marleau. The floor is yours. We will entertain questions after your presentation.

3:30 p.m.

Robert Marleau Former Clerk of the House of Commons, As an Individual

Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.

I don't have a formal presentation. I just made a few notes. You have an hour, so I thought I would spare you the Magna Carta evolution of supply. However, if you want, though, I gave some of that testimony to the precursors of this committee in September 1995 and February 1997. I'm sure your very adept researchers can quickly find that evidence, which summarizes the evolution of the business of supply since Confederation.

For today, what I thought I would do is address a couple of the issues or trends that I've seen emerging from the testimony you've already adduced from expert witnesses, academics, and otherwise, and from the Parliamentary Budget Officer.

Maybe what I'm now calling a couple of myths need to be demystified, and I also have a proposal for you, a very practical proposal that is doable within the existing Standing Orders. It comes in two parts, one with no money and one with new money. I know that new money is a delicate thing these days, but I believe that it might even be a sound investment.

First of all,

the testimony provided by Professor Franks, Mr. Wehner and the Parliamentary Budget Officer basically seem to revolve around the perception that members have insufficient information, that the information they do have is irrelevant and that the members' ability to consider the information submitted to Parliament is limited.

The second point raised is the following. Budgetary estimates are tabled on March 1. Everything is deemed adopted by May 31, at the latest. However, Parliament is adjourned for three weeks during that period, leaving the committee very little time for an expenditure review. That said, analyses have been conducted on the flexibility the executive branch gave itself recently in terms of approving vote transfers.

First let me address the deemed reporting issue. I know that Mr. McCallum recently has written an article in the Canadian Parliamentary Review and recommends that the standing order be changed.

The deemed reporting concept in the Standing Orders is one of balance. To simply remove it would throw the whole supply process out of balance, because when it was adopted in 1968 as an interim standing order, and then in the early seventies as a permanent standing order, with it came 25 supply days as a trade-off to the opposition: 25 days where the opposition could set down a motion—some of them of confidence and some of them not—and set the agenda. That was the compensation for having lost those supply days in the committee of the whole.

In return, the government was guaranteed its supply by no later than June 30. That was the trade-off. To now remove that and not reconsider the other I think would throw the whole supply process out of balance.

The other what I'll call a myth—and I don't want to offend anybody at the table, Mr. Chairman—is that the documents you get are not complete or are not enough. Well, I think they are. I think it's plenty. I think the improvements that were made in the eighties, and the progressive tinkering at the margins with the concepts of plans and priorities reports, the departmental performance reports, combined with the tabling of the estimates, if you want, at a high level on March 1....

Those reports, read together—all three parts—are more than enough. I've been on the drafting side of plans and priorities reports and I've had to argue with Treasury Board about program architecture and all that kind of stuff. It is quite detailed, and maybe too detailed in some cases, but I think you have all the information that is required to do a proper study of the estimates.

The other myth is the fact that committees cannot make reports on estimates to the House with substantive recommendations. The PBO referred to a 1979 ruling that changed this. Actually, it wasn't 1979; it was June 18, 1973, and it was by Speaker Lamoureux, who said for the first time on estimates that committees have only inherited the old powers of the Committee of Supply to adopt, negative, or reduce, and therefore a substantive recommendation in a report was out of order, since the Committee of Supply didn't have that power.

However, that ruling is moot now, in my view, because you have Standing Order 108. If you look at Standing Order 108, you'll see that all the expenditure plans of the government, by department, are permanently before the committee, yours and the others. So as for saying that now you cannot make substantive recommendations to the government on matters of expense or supply, you might not be able to do it within a report on the estimates, but you have ample access to make all the recommendations you like. So anyone who is now hanging on to that Speaker's ruling of 1973 I think is dated, if I can put it that way.

Finally, there is the PBO. You will remember this, Mr. Chairman, because you were on that committee when Bill C-2, the Federal Accountability Act, was before committee. I was invited as an expert witness. I wasn't very supportive of the PBO concept. I think I called it “congressional creep” when you have a tendency to want to borrow, out of other political cultures and other constitutional cultures, elements that we think may fit.

I caution you about Australia and New Zealand on that when you hear your witnesses next week, who are my two very good friends, Harry Evans and David McGee. Those are different political cultures. You have a senate that is elected by proportional representation in Australia, and you have a unicameral system in New Zealand, and a very transparent style of government in terms of access to information, cabinet confidences, and all that sort of thing.

The PBO, I argued at the committee, should have an estimates mandate, and the committee agreed. Indeed, the act was amended, and it was given an estimates mandate. I don't think it has done much with it, and I don't think committees have done much in terms of exploiting it.

So there is a bit of a congressional influence there, without the money, without the size, and without the staff. Again, it is in the Library, and in the wrong place, as far as I'm concerned, as I said at the time.

Those are the myths I wanted to put on the table and hopefully give you some insight on my thinking, which is that I don't believe they are impediments to the study of estimates.

If I may, I'll make a proposal. It comes from something I haven't seen in your committee document. It's an article written by two former MPs, Ron Huntington and Claude-André Lachance, back in the early eighties, when this very study was going on and following some 10 to 12 years of experience with the estimates going to all committees. They came up with a couple of concepts about macro-estimates committees, which would be charged with just that. My proposal to you flows from there.

MPs are spenders; they're not savers. You all come here because you have an agenda. Very few of you got elected with the promise that you would reduce the estimates of the government.

It's a challenge for the average MP to get into the estimates, when going in, at the front end, you can't do anything much about them. You can reduce them or you can negative them. So over the last 40 years, MPs have given up. The opening line of the last report, in 2003, from the Alcock committee, was a quote from me, which basically said that I felt that the House had abandoned its constitutional responsibility to review supply. I didn't know they were going to use that as the opening line, but they did.

Here is what I'm proposing. This committee should get a new mandate, an expanded mandate. It should be called something else. It could keep government operations as part of its title, but I think it should be called the appropriations committee. The mandate should be in the Standing Orders, and in the Standing Orders, there should be an instruction to this committee to table in the House, within 60 days of its appointment, a five-year plan of study and review of government appropriations and estimates.

You have to look to the past to make sense of what is being proposed. You can't say that the estimates just evaporate once they're deemed reported. They don't. They're there. They exist, and you have access to them.

The composition of the committee should be made permanent. Now, let's be realistic. There are only 308 MPs. There are too many committees and not enough MPs. There are not enough committee rooms. There are all kinds of issues. There's the block system, whereby you can only meet twice a week and you can't meet out of your.... Those are all impediments that are not necessarily relevant today, but they contribute to it.

The whips are the major problem in committees and have been since the nineties, when the Liberals returned to power. Mr. Mulroney was much more generous with power for committees and their membership. Some of you may remember Don Blenkarn, who was chair of the finance committee for years and years. When they tried to take him out, there was a revolt in the House, and not just by the opposition.

The membership should be made permanent. By that I mean it should be for the duration of a session, and the whips should not be allowed to intervene. The chair should be elected for the duration of the Parliament, as the Deputy Speaker is. The Deputy Speaker is elected for the duration of the Parliament.

The chairs should come from the opposition, as it is, and the vice-chairs should come from the government. The vice-chairs should be appointed for the duration of Parliament as well. That way, over time, if the House switches sides, you have experience in vice-chairs on one side of the House and experience in chairs on the other side of the House, and there could be continuity in the role of that committee.

They should have the usual powers to send papers and persons to report to the House with recommendations, and they should have the power to appoint subcommittees. Each vice-chair could have a subcommittee of his or her own as part of the five-year review plan. That plan would be published and tabled in the House. The bureaucracy would know exactly what's coming down the pipe in terms of macro-studies.

Concurrently, the estimates every year would be referred to the committees for the usual round of the review of supply process.

The statutory instruments committee—some of you may not have discovered this yet—has access to the House for debate every Wednesday at one o'clock. It doesn't happen very often. They have the power to revoke a regulation. The minister shows up, committee of the whole style, and he must explain why he will not revoke that regulation. If he doesn't show up, it's automatically revoked.

So you have an hour that would not interfere with government time. It's there, from 1:00 to 2:00. It's committee time. It's never used. This committee should have access to that hour, and your reports with recommendations should be subject, mano-a-mano with the minister on the floor, committee of the whole style—not 40 bureaucrats, but maybe the deputy minister sitting in front of his minister advising him—as to why the government accepts or doesn't accept the recommendations of a particular study.

There could be a vote. It doesn't have to be confidence, but there could be a vote. And it's deferrable anyway, so there's no surprise to the government. That way, I think, you would revitalize the process, bring MPs back into it in terms of an interest. Bring the minister in on it. Most ministers come to committee on estimates, make a perfunctory statement, and then they turn it over to the accounting officer, deputy minister, and you may never see the minister again.

The PBO should be the core staff of this committee. The PBO should be moved out of the library into the committees branch, and made a full-fledged officer of the House. Half of his budget—whatever it is today, I have no idea—should be spendable by this committee on studies, and the other half by other committees on estimates, as they apply for it. Take it out of the reach of the Liaison Committee, which has just become a tool for the whip to control where committees are going and how much they're spending, and not just in this government. The previous government did the same thing, going back to the Chrétien days.

The Board of Internal Economy just cut $3.8 million out of committee spending, and that's too bad. It's tragic, particularly that the Gagliano plan in the 1990s cut out $4 million. So it's not just one government here. There's an evolution. There's at least $12 million of missing money in committee spending over the last decade, which could be spent on things like the PBO and committee study of estimates.

This first part is all doable in the Standing Orders. You don't have to ask the government's permission to do this. All you have to do is change it. It takes leadership on the government leader's side, but it's all standing order changes. You don't have to go back and change the bureaucracy's performance, the budget timing.... All of that is doable in the Standing Orders.

If you want to put some new money in it, pay the chairman the same as the deputy speaker. If the chairperson is going to be there for the duration of the Parliament, there's only one way—

3:45 p.m.

NDP

The Chair Pat Martin

—I'm looking for a motion to that effect, if anyone would like to do so.

3:45 p.m.

Former Clerk of the House of Commons, As an Individual

Robert Marleau

—and pay the vice-chairs the same as a parliamentary secretary, because if you want MPs to invest part of their political career in an accountability exercise, then you're going to have to find a way to compensate that. The members of the committee should be paid the same as committee chairs are currently paid.

I know it's not popular right now to spend money on MPs, or raise their pay, or whatever, but if you're going to give it some credibility, usually there's money attached to credibility. Give the committee a budget outside the committee control—that may mean new money—and increase the PBO funding, but limit its mandate to appropriations and supply.

I know that Mr. Wehner, one of the witnesses here, was quite intrigued with the PBO as a concept. I'm not sure we need a parallel finance department in Parliament. That's all I'm going to say about the role of the PBO, but you do need the long-term help on the estimates. You need to build a cadre of professional researchers who can, over time, put things together for you with a sense of perspective.

I think I'll leave it at that, Mr. Chairman. I've already gone too long.

3:45 p.m.

NDP

The Chair Pat Martin

Mr. Marleau, thank you very much for that presentation. There's plenty of food for thought on this.

We will go right into questions, and Alexandre Boulerice has five minutes.

3:45 p.m.

NDP

Alexandre Boulerice Rosemont—La Petite-Patrie, QC

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Mr. Marleau, thank you for your lively and meaningful, yet succinct, presentation. It is based on much experience and knowledge.

You used the term "accountability". I think that's the very foundation of the exercise in which we are currently engaged and of the work we as parliamentarians and legislators must do.

How would you rate the current federal government's transparency and accountability?

3:45 p.m.

Former Clerk of the House of Commons, As an Individual

Robert Marleau

Not too long ago, I was the information commissioner. So I am going to refer to the reports I produced at the time, where I did not praise the government's transparency. Of course, being against transparency is like being against motherhood. One cannot disagree with it; there is never enough transparency. If we compare ourselves to other parliaments, globally, we are well behind.

3:45 p.m.

NDP

Alexandre Boulerice Rosemont—La Petite-Patrie, QC

Studies similar to the one we are now conducting have been carried out regarding the expenditure process.

Members are aware of all the pitfalls they will have to avoid so they can do serious work on budgetary estimates and government expenditures.

Two reports—produced in 1998 and in 2003—have largely been ignored. In addition, some comparative statements indicate that the recommendations are not being applied or are undetermined.

Do you think the study we are conducting could be serious? Could it be useful? As things currently stand, will the executive branch really be prepared to give up some of its power in favour of the legislative branch in order to strike more of a balance between the two branches?

3:50 p.m.

Former Clerk of the House of Commons, As an Individual

Robert Marleau

I pointed out that the government needs to take on something of a leadership role. The Standing Orders of the House of Commons cannot be amended—in the context I raised—unless the government agrees. The government's responses to the latest two reports you mentioned were poor.

The Treasury Board said that the Standing Orders should be amended but has left it to Parliament to deal with that. That's an easy way to show disagreement, while at the same time washing one's hands of the matter.

What we need is a joint agreement between the opposition and the government leaders. I think the way to sell this initiative is by saying that such a committee could be very good for the government. Parliamentarians' opinion needs to be available over a five-year period, along with in-depth comparative studies. I am talking about a five-year period because the first year of the subsequent Parliament may have to be included.

It's not all negative. That committee wouldn't be going on witch hunts, since other committees can do that every year when examining budgetary estimates. If it's witches we are after, we need not look very far.

The committee would be somewhat based on the public accounts model. In the case of public accounts, the horses are long gone. As soon as we start looking into public accounts, the horses have already gone a long way. It's impossible to influence the course of events. However, I think this committee could, in time—it would not happen overnight—use its recommendations to influence the direction of certain expenditures. Ministers may find those recommendations very useful, if they had the support of their parliamentary colleagues in a directive—in the cabinet—and especially considering the red tape involved.

3:50 p.m.

NDP

Alexandre Boulerice Rosemont—La Petite-Patrie, QC

How much time do I have left?

3:50 p.m.

NDP

The Chair Pat Martin

You have one minute.

3:50 p.m.

NDP

Alexandre Boulerice Rosemont—La Petite-Patrie, QC

You said that committees need more time to review estimates and that they need help. I think you're right.

When we receive a document, we study it very quickly. We have very few meetings to look into the issue and hear from ministers. One of the witnesses said that, if the main estimates were divided by the number of pages, the expenditures would work out to about $500,000 per page. Yet, we have only a few hours to ask questions. That method is not very reliable.