Evidence of meeting #38 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

  • David McGee  New Zealand's Parliamentary Ombudsman, As an Individual
  • Harry Evans  Former Clerk of the Australian Senate, As an Individual

4:25 p.m.

Liberal

John McCallum Markham—Unionville, ON

Thank you.

4:25 p.m.

NDP

The Chair Pat Martin

Thank you, Mr. McGee.

That pretty well concludes the amount of time we have. I want to say on behalf of the committee how very much we appreciate your coming in at that very early hour down in Godzone. We feel very lucky that you have shared both your experience and your expertise with us today. We found it very useful and very interesting.

On behalf of all the committee members, thank you so much, sir, for coming in to be with us today.

4:25 p.m.

New Zealand's Parliamentary Ombudsman, As an Individual

David McGee

Thank you for inviting me. I've enjoyed the experience.

4:25 p.m.

NDP

The Chair Pat Martin

I'm going to suspend the meeting for about five minutes while we convert over to our next witness.

4:25 p.m.

NDP

The Chair Pat Martin

Ladies and gentlemen, we will reconvene our meeting, the 38th meeting of the Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates, and continue our examination of the process of estimates.

We're very pleased to welcome our next witness by the magic of teleconferencing, Mr. Harry Evans, former Clerk of the Australian Senate.

You are very welcome, and we very much appreciate your coming in at such an hour, sir, to share with us some of the experience of our friends in your country in dealing with the estimate process properly.

We have about only 45 minutes to share together, sir. Usually we ask for opening remarks of perhaps five or ten minutes. That would leave committee members—it's an all-party committee, of course—an opportunity to ask you questions.

Having said that, Mr. Evans, the floor is yours. Welcome.

4:25 p.m.

Harry Evans Former Clerk of the Australian Senate, As an Individual

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Perhaps I could give a quick rundown of what happens with estimates here.

The annual appropriation bills are introduced to the House of Representatives in May, with additional appropriation bills in February. In the House of Representatives they go through the normal stages of a bill, including a committee-of-the-whole stage, in which members can ask questions of ministers.

In the Senate it's more elaborate. At the same time as the bills are introduced, the estimates are tabled in the Senate. The estimates are the subject of very detailed explanatory notes presented by each department. Those notes include other expenditure outside the annual appropriation bills, and that expenditure is open for examination.

The estimates are referred in the Senate to eight standing committees, which are subject-specialized committees, according to their subjects. They hold estimates hearings in May, with main estimates hearings of two weeks. They hold supplementary estimates hearings in November, in which they follow up on matters that arose in the May hearings. Then they hold hearings in February on the additional estimates.

In the hearings, all activities of departments are open for examination. They don't talk about estimates, as such. They talk about activities of departments, what departments are doing and why, and all those activities of departments are open for examination. There's a resolution in the Senate that says any questions going into the activities of departments and their financial positions are relevant questions.

Sometimes the hearings are fairly partisan and controversial. They concentrate on controversial matters, government programs that are alleged to be wasteful or inefficient, and so on. You get non-government senators asking very penetrating questions. Government senators are briefed to defend their ministers and their departments.

For the most part, the hearings concentrate on detailed examination of departments' activities and what they are doing, and why. Public servants from the various departments appear, and Senate ministers sit in on the hearings with those public servants. Each Senate minister represents a number of their ministerial colleagues in the House of Representatives. They are, theoretically anyway, briefed to take questions on any of the activities of those ministries. Of course when the discussion gets fairly political and concentrates on policy matters, the ministers are there to take the questions.

Under a rule of the Senate, public servants are allowed to take questions on notice and to answer the questions in writing, and also to refer questions to their superior officers and to ministers.

What does everybody get out of this process? A vast amount of information comes out that is not otherwise available. The press pays great attention to estimates hearings, and there are extensive reports in the press of information that comes out that would not otherwise be available.

Senators get better informed about the activities of departments, and ministers get much better informed as well. Ministers have said to me on many occasions that sitting through estimates hearings is a good way of finding out what their own departments are doing. Ministers are better informed as a result.

That's briefly how the process works.

4:30 p.m.

NDP

The Chair Pat Martin

That's very useful, Mr. Evans.

Given the shortness of time, we will go right into rounds of questioning. The first questions will be from the New Democratic Party, the official opposition.

We'll start with Mr. Denis Blanchette. Denis, you have five minutes.

April 4th, 2012 / 4:30 p.m.

NDP

Denis Blanchette Louis-Hébert, QC

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Mr. Evans, thank you for helping us do our job better.

You seem to have a highly developed system of hearings in your country. You said that the ministers understand their own budget better. Do the members generally have a good understanding of the estimates? I am talking about the members of the various committees that examine them. Do members in your country currently have a hard time understanding what they are approving?

4:30 p.m.

Former Clerk of the Australian Senate, As an Individual

Harry Evans

Sometimes they do, indeed, yes. They have to improve their understanding by asking questions. That's the whole purpose of the process, because there are things they don't understand, and it's the job of the public servants to make sure that they do understand them as much as possible.

A lot of things in departments remain mysterious, as you can well imagine, but I am quite sure that the Senate has a far better understanding of how departments work as a result of this process.

4:30 p.m.

NDP

Denis Blanchette Louis-Hébert, QC

Regarding the support provided for parliamentarians in your country, how is that support organized so that parliamentarians can do their job properly and quickly understand the masses of data they receive?

4:35 p.m.

Former Clerk of the Australian Senate, As an Individual

Harry Evans

Each member of Parliament, each senator, has his or her own research staff. They also have research staff attached to their parties. Before the estimates hearings, those research staff do a lot of work preparing material for the senators. The committees also have their non-partisan permanent staff, and they're available to assist the senators in understanding the estimates and in formulating lines of inquiry.

Those staff are able to contact departments to clarify matters with departments beforehand and to signal to departments the matters they're going to be questioned on. Through that process, senators have a good deal of support and should be well prepared when they come to the estimates hearings.

4:35 p.m.

NDP

Denis Blanchette Louis-Hébert, QC

Let us talk about accountability. With estimates or a budget, we eventually want to see whether the objectives that were set are being met.

Does your country have the equivalent of what we have here? Is it always the same people who oversee the preparation of the budget estimates and the examination of the public accounts, the annual reports, or is it different groups? How is this examination designed so that new estimates can be properly scrutinized?

4:35 p.m.

Former Clerk of the Australian Senate, As an Individual

Harry Evans

Apart from these committees and the staff who work on the estimates, the estimates and the explanatory notes of the departments are subjected to scrutiny by a large number of other people and bodies.

There is a public accounts committee, a joint committee on public accounts, which does the technical scrutiny of public accounts and reports regularly on them. They are assisted by the Auditor General, who audits the public accounts and does performance audits that look particularly at the performance of departments.

The Auditor General and the reports of his office are available to the estimates hearings and the senators in the estimates hearings. Audit reports provide one basis for questioning at estimates hearings.

There is a good deal of focus on the performance of departments and the effectiveness of programs.

4:35 p.m.

NDP

Denis Blanchette Louis-Hébert, QC

You spoke about a detailed examination of departments' activities. In our committee, we wonder in how much detail we can study the figures.

In Australia, do parliamentarians conduct a very detailed examination, or is it more of an overview of all activities? How do parliamentarians react to this level of scrutiny?

4:35 p.m.

Former Clerk of the Australian Senate, As an Individual

Harry Evans

The explanatory notes the departments provide are very detailed.

Obviously, senators focus on things that are of interest to them, and those matters of interest are very often politically selected. They're the things that are controversial. They are the things there is political controversy about. Public servants sometimes complain that senators pass over programs costing millions and look at programs costing mere thousands, but that is because the thousands are controversial and difficult, and the programs costing millions are well understood and don't involve controversy and difficulty. There is a focus on the matters that cause difficulty and controversy, certainly.

The capacity is there for senators to go fairly deeply into programs they're interested in.