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Evidence of meeting #37 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

Robert Marleau  Former Clerk of the House of Commons, As an Individual
John Williams  Chief Executive Officer, Global Organization of Parliamentarians Against Corruption, As an Individual

4 p.m.

NDP

Mathieu Ravignat NDP Pontiac, QC

You have five minutes to develop it.

4 p.m.

Former Clerk of the House of Commons, As an Individual

Robert Marleau

Yes, I know.

Is this a national trend? I read Mr. Wehner's testimony, according to which Canada is something of an example, with its parliamentary budget officer. The idea is that we should keep things as they are. In the Westminster system, accountability lies with the House, and responsibility lies with the government. The game has been played for 600 years, during which time the opposing sides have been engaged in a tug of war. I don't think that will change. The dynamic within Westminster-based parliaments leads to confrontation.

Her Majesty's loyal opposition....

is a constitutional concept. To what extent can the legislative branch take charge and control the executive branch? I am going back to the

“congressional creep”.

I did not like a trend that developed in the 1990s, when a number of private members' bills came to a vote. I don't think that MPs are like the U.S. House of Representatives members. Members of Parliament are elected to represent their riding. I think that the power to initiate legislation belongs to the government. The power to consider legislation belongs to the government. The House, for its part, keeps the government accountable before MPs—both on the government side and the opposition side—in terms of its spending.

Should the legislative branch govern the country? No, but since the 1990s, our Standing Orders have provided all kinds of examples of what I call congressional creep. That system is completely different from ours.

Then you have the constitutional calamity of budget-making in Washington.

Don't go there.

4:05 p.m.

NDP

Mathieu Ravignat NDP Pontiac, QC

It is nevertheless somewhat strange that those tools are available to us, but are underused. That's what you're saying.

4:05 p.m.

Former Clerk of the House of Commons, As an Individual

Robert Marleau

Once I was no longer the clerk—I actually never would have dared say so while I held that position—I pointed out that, in my opinion, parliamentarians—the House—had abandoned that role. With time, the interest fizzled out. How much interest do MPs have in sitting down and scrutinizing Industry Canada's budget? All they can do is reduce or vote against the appropriations. What's the interest in doing that if they cannot make recommendations?

4:05 p.m.

NDP

Mathieu Ravignat NDP Pontiac, QC

We were hoping the interest would be to govern this country properly and to ensure good management, but I will move on to the next question.

You made some very interesting comments on the role of the parliamentary budget officer. Do you think that person has enough power? If not, what kind of power should they have?

4:05 p.m.

Former Clerk of the House of Commons, As an Individual

Robert Marleau

I don't think that person has any power. They have no authority. According to the newspapers, the officer is complaining that no one gives him access to documents. If he were an officer of the House associated with this committee, he would have all the power. A motion ordering that documents be presented or that a witness appear before a parliamentary committee is still mostly respected. However, the Parliamentary Budget Officer currently has no power.

4:05 p.m.

NDP

Mathieu Ravignat NDP Pontiac, QC

So the government is appearing to be transparent.

4:05 p.m.

Former Clerk of the House of Commons, As an Individual

Robert Marleau

I don't want to attribute motives to it. At the time, when Parliament had Bill C-2 before it and I appeared as a witness, I said that it was at the wrong place and that part of the mandate was missing. If you want Parliament or the House of Commons to have elements that contribute to the government's obligation to be accountable, it is not in the formula that it is....

We can chase F-35s any time; that's glamourous. But having to respond to a committee report asking you to do a specific job and a specific analysis, say over a five-year plan, would be more effective.

4:05 p.m.

NDP

Mathieu Ravignat NDP Pontiac, QC

Thank you.

4:05 p.m.

NDP

The Chair NDP Pat Martin

Thank you, Mathieu.

Next for the Conservatives we have Peter Braid for five minutes.

April 2nd, 2012 / 4:05 p.m.

Conservative

Peter Braid Conservative Kitchener—Waterloo, ON

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Thank you very much, Mr. Marleau, for being here this afternoon. It was a very interesting presentation.

I want to circle back to a couple of points you made in your opening presentation. One of your suggestions was that this committee should become an appropriations committee. How would the mandate of the committee change in that case?

4:05 p.m.

Former Clerk of the House of Commons, As an Individual

Robert Marleau

The mandate would be binding. The way I would draft the standing order for this five-year study plan, to be tabled in the House in the first 60 days of its appointment, would be a mandatory instruction from the House—“It shall do it”—just like the procedure committee shall review the Standing Orders. In that sense, it has been given a specific accountability mandate way beyond what it has now. It has standing, in a sense, because not many committees have that, and you permanently have the expenditures—past, present, and future—before the committee.

Obviously you can't sit there as members and go through all the estimates line-by-line, but equipped with the proper staff and the plan that you agreed to, I think you could have some impact.

4:05 p.m.

Conservative

Peter Braid Conservative Kitchener—Waterloo, ON

Twinned with that you suggested that the mandate of the PBO should change. Could you elaborate on that?

4:05 p.m.

Former Clerk of the House of Commons, As an Individual

Robert Marleau

I think the mandate of the PBO should be largely in support of committees on supply. If you're studying whether the age of qualification for the OAS should be reduced or not, you have ample access to experts out there who can come in on contract and work with your witnesses. But there is nobody out there in the private sector—there's only one former clerk alive, and that's me—who understands the supply process and the supply details. So you need a staff that is on it, and that is continuity for you and for the next committee and the one thereafter, much as you have with the library and the researchers.

I'm not saying that the PBO should not have the mandate it has now. I'm saying it hasn't exercised part of its mandate. As far as I know there has not been a lot of work done by the PBO on estimates, and it's been before them and with them from day one. I would move it out of the library. It's kind of a barnacle on the side of the library, and you remember the tussles they had at the very beginning of the creation of the office, where the poor man didn't know who he reported to and what he was supposed to do. It's not a criticism; I'm just saying it's in the wrong place. Put it in the House, in the committee's branch, and make him an officer of the House, and then that office has to conduct itself....

Right now the perception, at least on the outside, is that it is largely an opposition function. Why can't you as government have access to some of this information and direct, through your majority control, certain studies that you want done from time to time? It's not sufficient for government parliamentarians to say you have all the bureaucracy. As parliamentarians sitting in government, you can have influence on your own government, and hold it accountable for some of the things it does. It doesn't have to be negative and it doesn't have to be a confidence issue, and you shouldn't get booted out of caucus because you have a point of view on a particular aspect of spending.

4:10 p.m.

Conservative

Peter Braid Conservative Kitchener—Waterloo, ON

Here's my final question. You also spoke about Standing Order 108, and I think you implied that it's really an underutilized standing order at this point in time. Could you elaborate on how Standing Order 108 could be more fully utilized and what its role is?

4:10 p.m.

Former Clerk of the House of Commons, As an Individual

Robert Marleau

Standing Order 108 came into being in the late 1980s. I believe it was 1987, following the adoption of the McGrath reforms under Mr. Mulroney. The idea was to give the committees the power to initiate their own studies within their remit, because before that, committees used to have to wait for an order of reference from the House and wait for the estimates. Why did members past—I won't say present, yet—go looking for scandals in the estimates? It's because in the past that was the only way they could get at them. They had to wait for the House to give them an order. Now with Standing Order 108, committees are empowered to begin with whatever kind of study they want, within relevance.

How is it important to the relationship of supply? Up until 1987 when the estimates were deemed reported, as I said before, the perception was that the estimates had evaporated and the issues with them. Wrong. Standing Order 108 continues to give you that access. I have not seen very many committees that have used 108 to pursue a supply study after the estimates have been adopted.

4:10 p.m.

NDP

The Chair NDP Pat Martin

Your time is up, Peter. Thank you very much.

We'll go to John McCallum, for the Liberals.

4:10 p.m.

Liberal

John McCallum Liberal Markham—Unionville, ON

Thank you.

I'm afraid I'm a little bit confused about your proposal and exactly what it would do. You said within 60 days there would be a report on expenditures over a five-year period, I think. Is this a committee that would essentially do estimate reviews and provide proposals on that, or would it be doing separate studies on related issues and reporting on that? What would it do that's different from what happens today?

4:10 p.m.

Former Clerk of the House of Commons, As an Individual

Robert Marleau

This new appropriations committee would, within 60 days of it being appointed, file a report to the House with a study plan for the next five years.

4:10 p.m.

Liberal

John McCallum Liberal Markham—Unionville, ON

A study plan.

4:10 p.m.

Former Clerk of the House of Commons, As an Individual

Robert Marleau

Here's what we are going to do with the appropriations and the estimates for the next five years.

4:10 p.m.

Liberal

John McCallum Liberal Markham—Unionville, ON

What would such a plan look like?

4:10 p.m.

Former Clerk of the House of Commons, As an Individual

Robert Marleau

It could pick six or seven departments, and for the next five years, the studies would relate from the last set of appropriations to the one being proposed, or to a particular issue flowing from that department—the procurement or whatever. Or another part could be thematic. It could be that it is going to look across the government on procurement, as an example, and report to the House and make recommendations.

4:10 p.m.

Liberal

John McCallum Liberal Markham—Unionville, ON

It's in the context of such reports that we would ask questions of the minister in the House.

4:10 p.m.

Former Clerk of the House of Commons, As an Individual

Robert Marleau

That's right. If a report were tabled in the House and you chose to concur it in, you would take up that debate between one and two on Wednesdays. The minister would be present and would have to answer to that report.