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 senate.

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

April 4th, 2012 / 4:05 p.m.

NDP

Mathieu Ravignat Pontiac, QC

Thank you for being with us, Mr. McGee.

When it comes to votes, your system is slightly different. If I understand correctly—and you can correct me if I am wrong—votes are classified by output area, such as health or police, rather than by department. Within each vote are a number of appropriations, I think.

We have a great deal of difficulty understanding some things. Are your members able to readily understand output appropriations and find required information in the main estimates?

4:05 p.m.

New Zealand's Parliamentary Ombudsman, As an Individual

David McGee

You are correct that our estimates are divided by sectors rather than by departments, but they generally coincide with individual departments. Some departments have responsibility for more than one vote and some departments' votes are contained in a part of another vote.

Some of the criticism, I think, of New Zealand is that we have too many departments and that we probably have too many estimates votes.

As far as the information that's presented to parliamentarians is concerned, it's extremely comprehensive. I don't think one could complain that information isn't presented to parliamentarians, but the problem is getting one's head around it, understanding it, and using it in a satisfactory way. There's a great deal of information there, but a great deal of work sometimes has to be done to find out what that information means. So I don't necessarily believe that individual deputies, parliamentarians, do understand, and probably could benefit from some greater support in that regard.

4:10 p.m.

NDP

Mathieu Ravignat Pontiac, QC

In New Zealand, are members able to track spending from announcement to inclusion in the estimates to actual spending during the financial year?

4:10 p.m.

New Zealand's Parliamentary Ombudsman, As an Individual

David McGee

It's very difficult, I think, to trace an expenditure authority into an actual implementation during the course of the year. Parliamentarians, of course, do ask questions of ministers during the course of the year. They have the ability to call in officials and to examine them, but there is an awful lot else going on. You're passing legislation during the course of the year, and your attention is not fully focused on the way in which government departments are administering the appropriations they are making on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis. I think you probably would find you simply don't have the time to monitor in that kind of detail.

That's why it's quite important, it seems to me, to have a point at which the department then has to come back to Parliament at the end of the financial year and report on the way in which it did use those resources, its stewardship. That's what, in our system, financial review provides: an opportunity for parliamentarians to engage with departments on an annual basis.

4:10 p.m.

NDP

Mathieu Ravignat Pontiac, QC

I have the feeling that it is a challenge for parliamentarians in New Zealand, just as it is for us here.

I also wanted to ask you a question about the officers of Parliament who verify the budget process, votes, and so on. I believe you mentioned three. Could you describe their role and their ability to inform parliamentarians?

4:10 p.m.

New Zealand's Parliamentary Ombudsman, As an Individual

David McGee

Yes, I could.

One of the offices is very important to the parliamentary process of considering expenditure approvals.

There are three officers of Parliament in New Zealand. The oldest is the ombudsman, the office that I hold, which is traditional ombudsman work in terms of looking at allegations of maladministration throughout the public sector. And also in New Zealand, the ombudsman is the adjudicator on disputes over access to freedom of information. But there isn't a great deal of ongoing, day-to-day contact between the ombudsman and the way in which Parliament works.

A second officer of Parliament in our system is the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, who is an independent official who will launch inquiries into policies or actions that have environmental consequences or implications. It's a voice outside government to which groups can turn when they think something is going to have an adverse consequence for the environment, which can then be investigated and reported to Parliament. The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment becomes involved with parliamentary committees if they're carrying out an inquiry with environmental implications, but it's a very occasional involvement with the work of Parliament.

The third official is the Auditor General. The Auditor General's Office does have an ongoing relationship with Parliament because the Auditor General's staff are available to be attached to parliamentary committees, especially when they're doing the post-budget review of the way in which governments and departments use their expenditure authority. The Auditor General's staff are also available during the estimates, but I don't think that committees find the Auditor General's staff as useful in their estimate approval process as they do in their post-budget analysis, because that's where the Auditor General's particular strengths are brought to bear.

Although we don't have a parliamentary budget office, there is support available from the Office of the Auditor General to parliamentarians in their budget approval and in their post-budget analysis phases.

4:15 p.m.

NDP

The Chair Pat Martin

Thank you, Mr. McGee.

Thank you, Mr. Ravignat.

Next, for the Conservatives, is Mr. Ron Cannan. You have five minutes, Ron.

4:15 p.m.

Conservative

Ron Cannan Kelowna—Lake Country, BC

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Thanks, Mr. McGee, for sharing your wisdom for the committee's review of the process and the consideration of estimates and supplies.

First I would like to say that if you see a beautiful blonde 21-year-old Canadian girl running around, it's my daughter on spring break. She's going to university in Australia, but she's spending ten days with a bunch of international students in New Zealand. I hope they're behaving themselves.

4:15 p.m.

New Zealand's Parliamentary Ombudsman, As an Individual

David McGee

I'll watch out for her.

4:15 p.m.

Voices

Oh, oh!

4:15 p.m.

Conservative

Ron Cannan Kelowna—Lake Country, BC

Thanks.

This is a bit of a daunting task because of the volume and complexity of some of the information we've received. We're trying to make it a little more understandable.

I believe New Zealand in the 1990s restructured the timing process. That's something we've been looking at. April 1 is a new fiscal year for the Canadian government, and we're looking at the timing of the budget. I notice that you have to table your budget at least 30 days before the beginning of your fiscal year, and apparently it's even earlier than that. What are the advantages of that?

4:15 p.m.

New Zealand's Parliamentary Ombudsman, As an Individual

David McGee

In New Zealand we were very lax until about 1990 in our timetabling of the budget. In 1990 we introduced a new system. Our financial year starts on July 1 every year and runs until June 30. The legal requirement is that the budget must be presented to Parliament within 30 days of the financial year commencing. So a budget could be presented up to the end of July, but in practice our governments present the budget in May. That is about two months before the end of the financial year. The estimates process then gets under way before the financial year opens. But the estimates process takes about three or four months to run, so the budget isn't actually approved until one or two months into the new financial year.

It's a huge improvement on the system we used to operate under, which was temporary financial authorities for the majority of the year, and then final budget approval about one day before the financial year ended. It has been a major improvement in the way the system works. It works much more prospectively now than it ever did.

4:15 p.m.

Conservative

Ron Cannan Kelowna—Lake Country, BC

How far in advance does the government announce their budget date?

4:15 p.m.

New Zealand's Parliamentary Ombudsman, As an Individual

David McGee

The budget date is announced in about March for a May budget. The government tells Parliament when budget day will be.

4:15 p.m.

Conservative

Ron Cannan Kelowna—Lake Country, BC

In Canada it's usually a week or two before. There's not much of a heads-up.

I notice that you follow another procedure. The committee, six weeks prior, sends a questionnaire to all of the departments or agencies. This is a standard questionnaire. What kinds of questions do they ask in that questionnaire?