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Evidence of meeting #35 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 estimates.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Ned Franks  Professor Emeritus, Department of Political Studies, Queen's University, As an Individual
Joachim Wehner  Associate Professor, Public Policy, London School of Economics and Political Science, As an Individual

5:15 p.m.

Professor Emeritus, Department of Political Studies, Queen's University, As an Individual

Dr. Ned Franks

That's a very Canadian way of looking at things. I'm sure my colleague on the screen will support this. In most parliaments, committees are not as rigidly partisan as they tend to get in Canada.

5:15 p.m.

Conservative

Bernard Trottier Conservative Etobicoke—Lakeshore, ON

Mr. Wehner, maybe you can describe the voting process as to whether there is a committee or a subcommittee within different parliaments that actually votes on spending estimates. Or do they just observe and comment on the estimates?

5:15 p.m.

Associate Professor, Public Policy, London School of Economics and Political Science, As an Individual

Dr. Joachim Wehner

In many cases, the committees are tasked with preparing recommendations that respond to the government proposals, and then there is a vote on them on the floor of the House.

If you take, for example, the Swedish Parliament or the German Parliament, the finance committee—or the budget committee in the German case—makes many amendments every year, which are proposed to the House. When they come out of the committee, they are very rarely changed on the floor of the House. They represent a view that is usually accepted on the floor of the House.

Of course, the government usually is not against these amendments, or it allows them to happen. But it is also possible for the opposition to sometimes influence particular items. In many parliaments, you have some scope for cross-partisan cooperation.

Again, if it is possible, it's possible at committee level. I'm aware that the Westminster type of set-up tends to be extremely partisan, but if this space exists, it is at the committee level. It's even more important that the space not be diminished, for example, by the deemed rule or lack of time or things like that.

5:15 p.m.

Conservative

Bernard Trottier Conservative Etobicoke—Lakeshore, ON

Thank you. I have just one final question—

5:15 p.m.

Associate Professor, Public Policy, London School of Economics and Political Science, As an Individual

Dr. Joachim Wehner

I just want to add one short observation, which is on the number of line items.

Certainly, if you look at international evidence, my impression is, and you could do a study of this if you wanted to, that the number of lines you appropriate—so not the estimates, but the appropriations—is at the very low end of the spectrum. No one here suggests that you should go all the way to the other extreme. The extreme I know is Turkey, which has more than 30,000 line items in the budget. Nobody wants that. But having, say, somewhere between 500 and 1,000, with some provisions for executive flexibility to move money within the limits, within the vote, during the financial year—the so-called virement or reallocation—without going back to Parliament, with, say, a 5% threshold or 10% threshold, does not really hinder the executive in any way. It just forces it to design meaningful programs.

This is something you should be entitled to as parliamentarians. The executive should put thought into its programs. I think that's a key message I would like leave you with.

5:20 p.m.

Conservative

Bernard Trottier Conservative Etobicoke—Lakeshore, ON

I have one final question, if I have some time, Mr. Chair.

Very quickly, Professor Wehner, you mentioned that a timeframe with a minimum of three months between presentation of the budget and voting on it would be appropriate. Presumably, in that three months, departments would have time to put together estimates, which we could call our “main estimates”.

Given technological changes, is there a possibility to compress that even further? I know that if you give a bureaucrat three months to do something, they'll take three months to do it. If you give them six weeks, maybe they'll be able to do something in six weeks. Is there something now with modern accounting systems and so on that would allow us to compress that timeframe, if we move toward your recommendation to have a timeline between the budget being presented and the beginning of the fiscal year?

5:20 p.m.

Associate Professor, Public Policy, London School of Economics and Political Science, As an Individual

Dr. Joachim Wehner

Is your question referring to the scrutiny process within Parliament or to the formulation process in the executive?

5:20 p.m.

Conservative

Bernard Trottier Conservative Etobicoke—Lakeshore, ON

In a way, it's both.

I sense that you want to have estimates before the beginning of the fiscal year, so you want to introduce a budget well ahead of the beginning of the fiscal year. I want to explore whether a minimum of three months could be made even shorter, based on your experience in some other parliaments perhaps or maybe some insight you have into the process.

5:20 p.m.

NDP

The Chair NDP Pat Martin

Could we have a very brief answer, please, Dr. Wehner?

5:20 p.m.

Associate Professor, Public Policy, London School of Economics and Political Science, As an Individual

Dr. Joachim Wehner

I think sometimes it's like wine: it takes time. If you want good wine, you need to give it time to mature.

I think three months really is a minimum standard already. If you look at the U.S. Congress, they get the budget eight months prior to the beginning of the fiscal year. Germany gets it five months before. So three months really is not excessive. Within the legislature, I think a division of labour between committees can make the process more efficient. So instead of having just one committee to look at it, the fact that you have the sectoral committees dividing that task amongst them is already potentially a way of making it more efficient.

5:20 p.m.

NDP

The Chair NDP Pat Martin

Dr. Franks, did you have a brief opinion on that?

5:20 p.m.

Professor Emeritus, Department of Political Studies, Queen's University, As an Individual

Dr. Ned Franks

We would have to be rearranging the fiscal year, and we would have to be rearranging the government's calendar for preparing the estimates, but those things are matters of taste and habit rather than things fixed in stone.

I think that if as a committee you want to propose ways to give Parliament a greater opportunity to scrutinize budgets before they are actually implemented, you should.

5:20 p.m.

NDP

The Chair NDP Pat Martin

That may well be one of the recommendations that comes out of our study.

Dr. Franks and Dr. Wehner, thank you both for your very interesting and very valuable contributions.

A special thanks to you, Dr. Wehner, for the trouble you've gone to in order to be with us so late into the evening. We all took a lot of notes and enjoyed your presentation very much.

Dr. Franks, you are welcome at this committee any time. We may even want you back again as we continue with this study.

5:20 p.m.

Professor Emeritus, Department of Political Studies, Queen's University, As an Individual

Dr. Ned Franks

It would be my pleasure to come back.

Thank you. I've enjoyed it.

5:20 p.m.

NDP

The Chair NDP Pat Martin

Thanks to both of you.

Thank you, Dr. Wehner. I hope we meet again some time.

5:20 p.m.

Associate Professor, Public Policy, London School of Economics and Political Science, As an Individual

5:20 p.m.

NDP

The Chair NDP Pat Martin

We need to go in camera to deal with a couple of business items in the last ten minutes we have.

[Proceedings continue in camera]