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

4:15 p.m.

New Zealand's Parliamentary Ombudsman, As an Individual

David McGee

There's a standard set of questions that have been drawn up by finance committees in the past, but any other member might add particular questions to the questionnaire.

One of the things that committees are very interested in is the use of consultants—the extent to which departments propose to use consultants in the coming financial year, and the expenditure that is to be placed upon consultants. They are looking for the extent to which supposed savings by reducing permanent staff are actually not being translated into savings because the expenditure is being translated into engaging more consultants. That's quite a strong area of interest to departments.

The questions tend to be very much what individual members at a hearing, before sending out the questionnaire, want to put to the particular committees. The individual spokespersons from particular parties who are on those committees will have their own agenda on what questions they wish to ask. We had a list of over 100 questions addressed to the Office of the Ombudsman on its operations.

4:15 p.m.

Conservative

Ron Cannan Kelowna—Lake Country, BC

Is there a required timeline for the response?

4:15 p.m.

New Zealand's Parliamentary Ombudsman, As an Individual

David McGee

The questionnaire is usually sent out as soon as the budget date is known. The answers are expected to be delivered back to the committee the day after budget day. You can have up to two months to work on it. It's often quite a reasonable period of time for departments to prepare their replies.

4:20 p.m.

Conservative

Ron Cannan Kelowna—Lake Country, BC

That's very interesting. Thank you very much.

4:20 p.m.

NDP

The Chair Pat Martin

Thank you Ron, and thank you, Mr. McGee.

Next, for the Liberal Party, is Mr. John McCallum for five minutes.

April 4th, 2012 / 4:20 p.m.

Liberal

John McCallum Markham—Unionville, ON

Thank you.

Thank you, Mr. McGee.

One of the things that drew our attention to New Zealand was this business of dividing up the spending by output area or policy area, which I thought was interesting. But when you said those policy areas frequently coincide with departments, it sounded as if maybe it's not that different from what we do after all. Is that basically the system?

You said there were many categories. Approximately how many output areas or policy areas would there be to vote upon?

4:20 p.m.

New Zealand's Parliamentary Ombudsman, As an Individual

David McGee

There are about 40 votes in total each year to vote upon, which is not very different from the number of departments we have. Each of those vote areas might include three or four output classes within them. In some cases there may be only one output class, depending upon the size of the vote that's being considered.

There is a general tendency, as a treasury policy, to try to cut down the number of output classes and confine the expenditure approval to the overall vote, and going on from that I think is a treasury attempt to try to cut down the number of votes.

4:20 p.m.

Liberal

John McCallum Markham—Unionville, ON

Would you say that your output system, votes based on output, is better than a departmental system?

4:20 p.m.

New Zealand's Parliamentary Ombudsman, As an Individual

David McGee

I think it makes more sense. I think there must be a natural tendency for the two to grow together. After all, if one defines a particular output that the public sector needs to produce, then there is a presumption in a sense that it will be produced by a particular department.

The two ought to grow together. There's no point in having a department if it isn't producing outputs that anybody desires. The two do tend to march in step.

I think it makes sense to focus on what one wants to see produced by the public sector, rather than the institutions that are already doing the producing and therefore keeping themselves in business, whether they're producing anything useful or not.

4:20 p.m.

Liberal

John McCallum Markham—Unionville, ON

I certainly agree with that.

I would turn now to timing. Whereas in Canada the main estimates do not include measures announced in the previous budget, it's my understanding that they do in New Zealand. Is that correct?

4:20 p.m.

New Zealand's Parliamentary Ombudsman, As an Individual

David McGee

They do. Major policy announcements made in the budget will include expenditure to implement those policy announcements if the planning has proceeded far enough to enable that to be done. If it hasn't, the announcement might be made in the budget but a supplementary estimate will be presented to the Parliament later in the financial year to give the financial authority for what has been announced in the budget. It's a combination of the two, really.

4:20 p.m.

Liberal

John McCallum Markham—Unionville, ON

A lot of people have suggested that we should move to a system where, as much as possible, the main estimates also include budgetary measures. One of the possible objections that is sometimes raised in Canada is budget secrecy. If you have hordes of civil servants working on translating budget measures into estimates before the budget is presented, then the risk of a leak would seem to increase quite substantially.

Do you think that is an issue?

4:20 p.m.

New Zealand's Parliamentary Ombudsman, As an Individual

David McGee

I think budget secrecy is overstated as an impediment. I think what budget secrecy is intended to do is to protect against anybody learning what policy is being proposed and then cashing in on it by speculating in a way that is effectively fraudulent on insider knowledge. I certainly don't agree with any insider knowledge being given to anybody, but there's no reason governments shouldn't announce to the world what they're thinking about doing. And increasingly governments are doing this.

As long as everybody knows at the same time, there can't be any objection from a budget secrecy point of view to the fact that a particular policy is being considered and then an outline given to the community about what is under consideration. I think budget secrecy in the past has been overstated, and I think it's breaking down. I think it's a good thing that it is breaking down.

4:25 p.m.

Liberal

John McCallum Markham—Unionville, ON

Well, I certainly remember past budgets in this country being released on each of the seven days preceding the budget, in terms of major initiatives. So I think that has happened to a large degree here as well.

Is my time over?

4:25 p.m.

NDP

The Chair Pat Martin

I'm afraid it is, John. Thank you very much.