Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Perhaps I could give a quick rundown of what happens with estimates here.
The annual appropriation bills are introduced to the House of Representatives in May, with additional appropriation bills in February. In the House of Representatives they go through the normal stages of a bill, including a committee-of-the-whole stage, in which members can ask questions of ministers.
In the Senate it's more elaborate. At the same time as the bills are introduced, the estimates are tabled in the Senate. The estimates are the subject of very detailed explanatory notes presented by each department. Those notes include other expenditure outside the annual appropriation bills, and that expenditure is open for examination.
The estimates are referred in the Senate to eight standing committees, which are subject-specialized committees, according to their subjects. They hold estimates hearings in May, with main estimates hearings of two weeks. They hold supplementary estimates hearings in November, in which they follow up on matters that arose in the May hearings. Then they hold hearings in February on the additional estimates.
In the hearings, all activities of departments are open for examination. They don't talk about estimates, as such. They talk about activities of departments, what departments are doing and why, and all those activities of departments are open for examination. There's a resolution in the Senate that says any questions going into the activities of departments and their financial positions are relevant questions.
Sometimes the hearings are fairly partisan and controversial. They concentrate on controversial matters, government programs that are alleged to be wasteful or inefficient, and so on. You get non-government senators asking very penetrating questions. Government senators are briefed to defend their ministers and their departments.
For the most part, the hearings concentrate on detailed examination of departments' activities and what they are doing, and why. Public servants from the various departments appear, and Senate ministers sit in on the hearings with those public servants. Each Senate minister represents a number of their ministerial colleagues in the House of Representatives. They are, theoretically anyway, briefed to take questions on any of the activities of those ministries. Of course when the discussion gets fairly political and concentrates on policy matters, the ministers are there to take the questions.
Under a rule of the Senate, public servants are allowed to take questions on notice and to answer the questions in writing, and also to refer questions to their superior officers and to ministers.
What does everybody get out of this process? A vast amount of information comes out that is not otherwise available. The press pays great attention to estimates hearings, and there are extensive reports in the press of information that comes out that would not otherwise be available.
Senators get better informed about the activities of departments, and ministers get much better informed as well. Ministers have said to me on many occasions that sitting through estimates hearings is a good way of finding out what their own departments are doing. Ministers are better informed as a result.
That's briefly how the process works.