Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise at third reading of Bill C-17, an act to amend the Budget Implementation Act, 1997 and the Financial Administration Act.
There are two parts to the bill. I will emphasize the aspects related to the Budget Implementation Act, 1997. My colleague, the chair of the public accounts committee and chief critic for the treasury board, will address the amendments to the Financial Administration Act.
The bill seeks to increase funding for research and development through the Canada foundation for innovation by some $750 million over an undefined period of 10 years. This follows quite logically the remarks I just delivered on Bill C-22 when I discussed at length the irresponsible approach the government was taking to program spending.
I spoke about how in the fiscal year just ended program spending had grown by 7.1%, how the government had overspent its budgeted amount every fiscal year, and how for the next four years the government was estimated to average spending increases of about 5%. I expect it would be substantially more than that.
I also talked about the phenomenon known as March madness where ministers make spending announcements without proper authorization. I talked about how in April 2001, the last month of the fiscal year, we spent some $16 billion or 70% more than the average monthly amount.
This is of relevance to the bill before us. The government is proposing that we authorize an additional $750 million for the Canada foundation for innovation. Let me say at the outset that the official opposition, the Canadian Alliance, supports in principle an appropriate and responsible level of funding for research, development and innovation in academia which can be of economic value to the country. We believe government can play an appropriate role in that respect.
However such funding must be limited by the available resources. We are concerned that the $750 million funding envelope has no defined time period or parameters. It is not limited. The government says it may be spent over the next 10 years or so, or perhaps not. That is not a responsible approach. For a spending program like this the government has an obligation to come before us and detail where it expects to come up with the money and in which years and to book the money as spent in each of those fiscal years.
The auditor general has not only criticized the ongoing practice of March madness as inherently inefficient. He has repeatedly criticized the practice of booking future expenditures in one year as the government did with the famous millennium scholarship program and as it is doing now with the Canada foundation for innovation.
This accounting practice would not be accepted in the private sector. The government is ignoring its own rules and the recommendations of the auditor general in the way it is managing the moneys it seeks to authorize through the bill.
Another concern is that the government does not have a clear framework for financing science or research and development. We are dealing with major scientific and R and D projects on a case by case, piecemeal basis. My colleague from Calgary Southwest, our science and technology critic, has made and will continue to make important remarks on the subject. We need very clear criteria for the allocation of money for science, technology, research and development. Throwing the money into a big envelope and saying it will somehow be distributed on an equitable and meaningful basis is not good enough.
How do we adjudicate the relative economic and social value of a cyclotron project in British Columbia versus a nuclear research facility in Ontario versus a research program for astronomy? All these things come before us. Each has merits in and of itself but parliamentarians have no overall objective criteria by which to judge the value of competing R and D demands.
For that reason our party platform proposes that parliament appoint a chief scientist, a position which exists in many other national governments. Such a person would be the principal adviser to both the government and the legislature on scientific questions. He or she could help develop a clear framework to priorize the many competing demands related to R and D, science and technology. This would not require a large or expensive bureaucracy and it would be helpful to have such objective, external advice.
Those are our concerns regarding the first part of the bill. I will briefly outline our concerns regarding the amendments to the Financial Administration Act, concerns my colleague for St. Albert will elaborate further.
The clause seeks to clarify that parliament must provide explicit authority to departments, agencies, boards and commissions of the government in order to incur debt. That is very interesting.
I was briefed on the bill by officials from the Department of Finance who explained that the clause came about because of one of the government's innumerable legislative drafting errors. The error allows the Financial Administration Act to be interpreted in a way that permits departments and agencies to incur debt on their own authority without explicit authorization from parliament delegated to the Minister of Finance.
Over the past couple of years the Department of National Defence has been in a pitched quasi-legal battle with the Department of Finance over this question. The DND has sought independent borrowing authority not delegated by parliament which of course has the power of the purse.
We therefore support the aspect of the amendment regarding borrowing authority. However it begs the question: How can the government consistently bring forth legislation with such significant drafting errors which parliament must then spend valuable legislative time rectifying? That is a serious concern.
In bill after bill, as finance critic, I deal with all sorts of tax amendments which seek to amend errors in bills originally presented by the government. We must accept to a certain extent the bona fides of departmental officials and the government, the ministers who bring these bills to parliament, that they are technically correct. However too often they are not, as in this instance.
The amendment also deals with certain regulations surrounding the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board because of another drafting error. When the government made amendments to the Canadian Wheat Board Act it forgot to include the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board. The CPP investment board is therefore subject to intervention by the finance minister. He can go into the CPP investment fund and strip cash out of it, contrary to assurances given at the time of passage of Bill C-2 in the last parliament which created the CPP investment board.
However because of a drafting error the finance minister, contrary to every assurance granted us, can go into the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board and fire personnel, trash or write his own business plan, and strip cash out of the fund. This loophole needs to be plugged. It should never have occurred in the first place.
We will therefore be opposing the legislation. We will urge the government to take a much closer look at bills of this nature to ensure they do not create future problems which we must then go back and solve.