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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

5:05 p.m.

Conservative

Scott Armstrong Conservative Cumberland—Colchester—Musquodoboit Valley, NS

Thank you.

I have one last question for both of you.

Another problem we have is that it seems each department has its own way of doing accounting. For us, that makes things very confusing.

In your opinions, would centralizing the process be an option?

5:05 p.m.

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

Dr. Ned Franks

Treasury Board has responsibility for overseeing the production of accounts in departments. I think you should direct that question to Treasury Board and give them specific examples of the kinds of divergences in practice that concern you. It's certainly possible to make the accounting more uniform, but you have to draw the problem to their attention first.

5:05 p.m.

Conservative

Scott Armstrong Conservative Cumberland—Colchester—Musquodoboit Valley, NS

Dr. Wehner, do other countries use some sort of centralized process or format? Or is the situation like the one here, with every department kind of controlling its own accounting processes?

5:05 p.m.

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

Dr. Joachim Wehner

There should certainly be uniform standards with regard to the format of accounts. I hope that is the case in Canada. I would reckon it is. But it could well be that the quality of accounting varies a bit across departments, and then you would have to focus on rectifying that situation, because, really, that shouldn't be the case. I would agree with that.

Let me just add this one thing. In the U.K., the preparation of the annual accounts is very much devolved to departments. The practice that you see is that some departments produce accounts much more quickly than others. Through that process, especially after the introduction of accrual accounting, there's also been a bit of competition between departments. So if you are one of the laggards, you're trying to catch up with the ones who report early on after the close of a fiscal year. So that has been quite helpful in the U.K.

5:10 p.m.

Conservative

Scott Armstrong Conservative Cumberland—Colchester—Musquodoboit Valley, NS

Thank you.

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

5:10 p.m.

NDP

The Chair NDP Pat Martin

That was five minutes, bang on. Thank you.

Next, for the Liberals, we have John McCallum.

5:10 p.m.

Liberal

John McCallum Liberal Markham—Unionville, ON

This is just an observation, first, on your point about capital versus operating expenditure. I remember from the time we were in government—so it's not a partisan comment—that governments never spent a penny. All we did was invest.

5:10 p.m.

A voice

Oh, oh!

5:10 p.m.

Liberal

John McCallum Liberal Markham—Unionville, ON

So I agree with you that capital account could go up to 100%, and it's very arbitrary.

5:10 p.m.

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

Dr. Ned Franks

Thank you, sir.

5:10 p.m.

Liberal

John McCallum Liberal Markham—Unionville, ON

But going back to the deemed adopted rule, and the debate the two of you had, I think I'd tend to be more with Professor Wehner. If we take your point, would a substitute for that be a minimum amount of time devoted to the estimates of each department by each of the committees?

5:10 p.m.

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

Dr. Ned Franks

I think that's a sensible alternative. I must say—and I haven't looked at this recently—that when the estimates were first referred to committees many years ago, I kept track of what was happening there. Members tended to find it one of the more frustrating things they did. I'm not sure if that's changed or not. I think you people could answer that far better than I. But you wind up with a bunch of people asking questions, getting answers, and not being able to do anything with them. You can't write a report and you can't change the figure in front of you, so you go on to something you think is more useful.

5:10 p.m.

Liberal

John McCallum Liberal Markham—Unionville, ON

Maybe it would have to be done in conjunction with other things.

5:10 p.m.

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

Dr. Ned Franks

Well, I don't see why a parliamentary committee in Canada can't take note of the estimates and write a substantive report. So the report is not on the estimates, but it's taking note of them and writing a report on some issue that the committee wants to do a report on. I see no reason, since the estimates cover almost everything that government does, why you couldn't have wonderful reports coming out of committees that way.

5:10 p.m.

Liberal

John McCallum Liberal Markham—Unionville, ON

Going back to the issue I raised before about the G-8 legacy fund, whatever you wish to characterize it as, you may have said this, but I don't think I caught it: if we wanted to have the system changed so that governments could not do this freely but would at least have to report to Parliament if they shifted funds in this way, would that require some sort of legislative change? Would that be a good idea?

5:10 p.m.

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

Dr. Ned Franks

Well, you see, the shifting was within a vote, from one allotment to another—a sub-vote to another, as I prefer—but you can't have a vote structure so small that it cripples discretion within departments. On the other hand, you can't have a vote structure so big that departments have complete discretion. It's the thin line they walk. I'm trying to remember the Irishman who walked the thin line between discretion on the one hand and indiscretion on other. It's sort of like that in setting up these systems of votes and allotments.

There is a fair amount of discretion. Normally, to my mind, it's not abused. When I see something surprising, like what the Auditor General reported on, I scratch my head and ask, “How could that happen?” My suspicion is that it was something in the oddity of the vote and what was permitted in the allotments that allowed it. But normally we can trust, I think, that when Parliament votes money for a purpose, even down to the allotment level, the government is going to spend it on that.

5:10 p.m.

Liberal

John McCallum Liberal Markham—Unionville, ON

Okay.

I have one last point if I have time.

5:10 p.m.

NDP

The Chair NDP Pat Martin

You have 90 seconds.

5:10 p.m.

Liberal

John McCallum Liberal Markham—Unionville, ON

I think this comes back to the discussion we were having at an earlier meeting in this committee. I think there was unanimity that we don't want voting on line items, as they have in the U.S., because then you have politicians voting for things in their own riding, but neither do you want such a broad category that it's meaningless. So perhaps one thing this committee can do—I guess I would ask both of you—is to try to find that happy medium where you have enough detail to be meaningful, but neither too much nor too little.

5:10 p.m.

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

Dr. Ned Franks

All of you, I assume, sit on departmental committees as well as this one. You look at departmental estimates there. You might ask yourselves when you're looking at the estimates—or get the committee to ask—if the votes are too big or too little, if the allotments are appropriate, if you understand what the government is doing, and if you feel that you have control over it from what you are presented with.

Just start somewhere there. I think it's a very useful question, and you can come up with a useful answer, but I think you people have to do some research on your own.

5:15 p.m.

Liberal

John McCallum Liberal Markham—Unionville, ON

Well, from my point of view, it's certainly too aggregated rather than not aggregated enough.

5:15 p.m.

NDP

The Chair NDP Pat Martin

I'm afraid that uses up our five-minute allotment. We just have time to do our last speaker in this round. We'll hear from Bernard Trottier for five minutes.

Bernard.

March 26th, 2012 / 5:15 p.m.

Conservative

Bernard Trottier Conservative Etobicoke—Lakeshore, ON

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Thank you to our witnesses for coming in today.

I just want to build on John's point about the level of detail, but also on whether that level of detail is something that should be voted on. Or really, is it just a question of having a discussion on it and then reporting? It ties back to our centuries of tradition around the confidence convention, and obviously if something were voted on in a committee that could constitute lack of faith in the government, then the government should fall.

So is it appropriate to have some level of voting...? I guess I'll ask your opinion, Professor Franks, on whether it makes sense to have votes at all within a parliamentary committee that is looking at this. It could be the government operations and estimates committee or it could be another committee, a departmental committee. What are your thoughts on voting on estimates?

5:15 p.m.

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

Dr. Ned Franks

Prima facie, I don't see a problem, but ultimately the responsibility does not belong to the committee; it belongs to the House itself, and then the House itself has to realize that if it's changing a vote in a significant way, the government can treat this as a vote of confidence. So there are some unfortunate constitutional limits.

You might want to change it. You might want to say that every year there is a certain number of votes that can be changed and those will not be construed as votes of confidence.

5:15 p.m.

Conservative

Bernard Trottier Conservative Etobicoke—Lakeshore, ON

Part of that ties back to your earlier comment about all the associate members on the government side of this committee. I guess it comes down to how, as the government, it's difficult for us to lose a vote in the committee, because we're expected to win the votes, versus how the opposition can afford to lose votes, because normally they do lose votes on the committee....