Evidence of meeting #13 for Finance in the 43rd Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was economy.

A video is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Mitch Davies  Senior Assistant Deputy Minister, Industry Sector, Department of Industry
Daryell Nowlan  Vice-President, Policy and Programs, Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency
Bill Grandy  Director General, Programs, Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency
Andrea Johnston  Assistant Deputy Minister, Innovation Canada, Department of Industry
Margaret Buist  Vice-President, Policy and Planning, Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency
Richard Botham  Assistant Deputy Minister, Economic Development and Corporate Finance Branch, Department of Finance
Andrew Hayes  Deputy Auditor General and Interim Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, Office of the Auditor General
Yves Giroux  Parliamentary Budget Officer, Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer
Jason Jacques  Director General, Costing and Budgetary Analysis, Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer

5 p.m.

Bloc

Gabriel Ste-Marie Bloc Joliette, QC

But when you look at what has been done in the past, you're able to assess whether it was a good or bad investment for the economy.

5 p.m.

Deputy Auditor General and Interim Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, Office of the Auditor General

Andrew Hayes

We look at the government's plans and actions according to specific criteria. Many of these criteria come from the government.

5 p.m.

Bloc

Gabriel Ste-Marie Bloc Joliette, QC

Thank you.

5 p.m.

Parliamentary Budget Officer, Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer

Yves Giroux

I'd offer an answer to that question from a slightly different angle.

It's very difficult to measure the benefits of investments or expenditures such as research and development supports or credits that will encourage young people to learn non-university trades through an apprenticeship system, because there is often a strong attraction to university. Parents encourage young people to go to university. These are good paying jobs, but they have little appeal to young people.

It's difficult to measure the tangible benefits of these issues. That's why, to my knowledge, there aren't many accurate accounting ways to measure the benefits. It's also why, in many of these programs, the criteria are created by people who are elected and represented by the public. As they say in Latin, “vox populi, vox Dei ”. This is the role you play as parliamentarians. The people on this side of the table are not well positioned to play it.

5 p.m.

Bloc

Gabriel Ste-Marie Bloc Joliette, QC

Thank you very much.

5 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Wayne Easter

Thank you both.

We have Mr. Julian and then Mr. Cumming.

5 p.m.

NDP

Peter Julian NDP New Westminster—Burnaby, BC

Thanks very much, Mr. Chair.

Thanks to our witnesses for coming forward.

This is an important study because Canadians are really strapped. They're not able to pay for their medications. They're having difficulty finding affordable housing. Canadians have the highest family debt load of any industrialized country. At the same time, they see money being given to very profitable corporations—like Loblaws, for fridges—rather than seeing money actually provided for investments that help everybody.

I'd like to start with you, Mr. Hayes and Ms. Miller.

The whole issue of fossil fuel subsidies is also something that people raise because of the issues around climate change. Do you have an estimate of how much is currently provided as fossil fuel subsidies? In your experience, when you've asked for analysis around fossil fuel subsidies, how is the government in terms of providing access to that information?

5:05 p.m.

Deputy Auditor General and Interim Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, Office of the Auditor General

Andrew Hayes

I'll start with the second question.

In the 2017 report, which was presented as an Auditor General report, we did encounter difficulties in receiving the information we needed to be able to conclude on whether the government had analyzed the fossil fuel subsidies.

5:05 p.m.

NDP

Peter Julian NDP New Westminster—Burnaby, BC

The government wasn't co-operating, basically.

5:05 p.m.

Deputy Auditor General and Interim Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, Office of the Auditor General

Andrew Hayes

I wouldn't say that, because at that point in time the government explored our access rights and resolved the issue in 2018, which was the reason we went back to look at the issue and reported on it in 2019. I can say that in 2019 we received all the information that we required to be able to conclude our audit work.

In terms of your first question, I don't think we have a number for the amount that is spent or that is eaten up by fossil fuel subsidies. I would say that the tax expenditure report would be a good place to start. The department might have information that it can provide to you.

We did comment on the tax expenditure report in an audit in 2015 on tax-based expenditures. I can say that our office has not gone back to audit that, but we have noticed improvements in the information in the tax expenditure report.

March 10th, 2020 / 5:05 p.m.

NDP

Peter Julian NDP New Westminster—Burnaby, BC

Thank you very much for that.

Of course, the Trans Mountain subsidy, which is now over $17 billion and counting, is something that needs to be taken into consideration as well. I appreciate that.

I'll move over to you, Mr. Giroux. You're a hero to many of us across the country, with that landmark report last year looking at the incredible impact of tens of billions of dollars of overseas tax havens. There have been very large loans that have been made to big profitable corporations. Often those loans are forgiven afterwards, so Canadians see that as a massive subsidy. When millions of dollars are given to a company and it never has to pay that back, it raises the question to what extent the government is even evaluating how it is handing out money.

You have indicated that you would accept guidance from this committee. Would the PBO be interested in doing a study on this loan forgiveness and other types of corporate subsidies, corporate welfare, if a majority vote of this committee directed you to do that?

5:05 p.m.

Parliamentary Budget Officer, Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer

Yves Giroux

I was once told early in my career that what interests my boss becomes my passion.

5:05 p.m.

Voices

Oh, oh!

5:05 p.m.

Parliamentary Budget Officer, Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer

Yves Giroux

If the committee has an interest in this type of work and passes a motion to that effect, we will certainly become very passionate about this issue.

5:05 p.m.

NDP

Peter Julian NDP New Westminster—Burnaby, BC

Yes, so this is not something the PBO has tackled before, either the issue of massive loan forgiveness or other types of corporate welfare.

5:05 p.m.

Parliamentary Budget Officer, Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer

Yves Giroux

It's something that we wanted to look at, especially the issue of loan forgiveness, in the previous Parliament, but we ran out of time. The election arrived, as it was scheduled to arrive, but we never got to that part on our work plan: the issue of how loans get written off and the implications. It was a suggestion from a parliamentarian. We thought it was very interesting, but we never got to that.

5:05 p.m.

NDP

Peter Julian NDP New Westminster—Burnaby, BC

If we gave that direction from the finance committee, is it fair to say that the work plan is already in place? Would you be able to give us a sense of what the timelines would be for the PBO and what you would need from the finance committee in order to do that?

5:05 p.m.

Parliamentary Budget Officer, Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer

Yves Giroux

A motion would be very useful, because that would take precedence over many other things in my work plan. The more precise the parameters are, the more helpful it is for me as I align the work of the office with the direction the committee wants to hear about. We can have discussions with the clerk of the committee and analysts of the committee to see what would be the best way forward in terms of specific parameters. Based on that, we can get back to you with the timelines.

5:05 p.m.

NDP

Peter Julian NDP New Westminster—Burnaby, BC

Thank you.

5:05 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Wayne Easter

Before I go to Mr. Cumming, it was said rather quickly by Mr. Julian, but he basically said Trans Mountain is a subsidy. Do you consider the purchase of Trans Mountain a subsidy? I consider it the purchase of an asset. I think we need to define this because we hear it from Mr. Julian quite often that the Trans Mountain purchase is a subsidy. Is it not the purchase of an asset for certain purposes by the Government of Canada?

5:10 p.m.

Parliamentary Budget Officer, Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer

Yves Giroux

Whom are you asking, Mr. Chair?

5:10 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Wayne Easter

I'm asking whoever wants to answer. Both of you can answer, if you like.

5:10 p.m.

Parliamentary Budget Officer, Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer

Yves Giroux

I think if it's whoever wants to answer, nobody will answer.

5:10 p.m.

Voices

Oh, oh!

5:10 p.m.

Parliamentary Budget Officer, Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer

Yves Giroux

I'll answer.

It's the purchase of an asset at this time, but time will tell whether it's the purchase of a revenue-generating asset or a loss-making asset. When we find out the resale value, because the government's intention has always been to sell it back to the private sector, if the government sells it for less than the price it cost, it will have been an indirect subsidy. If the government can make a profit selling it to the private sector, then it will have been maybe a wise investment.

I'm not a betting man. I won't try to predict which way it will end. Maybe my colleague has a better answer.