This week, I changed much of the tech behind this site. If you see anything that looks like a bug, please let me know!

Evidence of meeting #38 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 senate.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

David McGee  New Zealand's Parliamentary Ombudsman, As an Individual
Harry Evans  Former Clerk of the Australian Senate, As an Individual

5 p.m.

NDP

The Chair NDP Pat Martin

Thank you, Mike.

If I could ask a supplementary question to a line that Mike was on, roughly how many hours would a minister or even the departmental officials spend with a committee in the examination of their estimates? Would it be hours, days, weeks?

5 p.m.

Former Clerk of the Australian Senate, As an Individual

Harry Evans

A small department may have a couple of hours. A big department, or a department with big problems, may take five hours, six hours, something like that.

5 p.m.

NDP

The Chair NDP Pat Martin

Would the minister stay for that period of time, or would it just be the technical advisers who would be answering the questions?

5 p.m.

Former Clerk of the Australian Senate, As an Individual

Harry Evans

The Senate ministers stay for 99% of the hearing. Sometimes ministers have difficulties and they absent themselves, but basically they stay for all the hearings.

5 p.m.

NDP

The Chair NDP Pat Martin

Thank you, Mr. Evans.

Next, for the NDP, we have Mr. Mathieu Ravignat.

5 p.m.

NDP

Mathieu Ravignat NDP Pontiac, QC

I would like to ask you whether Australia has done any studies like the review we are conducting of estimates and supply and, if so, whether they have led to any major changes.

5 p.m.

Former Clerk of the Australian Senate, As an Individual

Harry Evans

Yes.

The finance and public administration committee has the particular responsibility of looking at the whole estimates process and the appropriation process, and over the years it has made recommendations for improving the process, particularly recommendations in relation to explanatory notes, but also recommendations about the actual procedures of the Senate.

The Senate procedure committee has a similar responsibility to look at the Senate processes, so a number of changes have been made over the years as a result of those examinations.

5:05 p.m.

NDP

Mathieu Ravignat NDP Pontiac, QC

I will clarify the reason for my question a bit.

This committee has conducted several studies, but very few changes have resulted. There seems to be resistance from the executive. Have you gone through the same thing?

5:05 p.m.

Former Clerk of the Australian Senate, As an Individual

Harry Evans

Well, basically, it's not up to the executive; it's up to the Senate, and the processes the Senate goes through are determined by the Senate. While the government may have a view on them and may influence the changes that are made, basically it's up to the Senate. The whole system operates under resolutions of the Senate.

5:05 p.m.

NDP

Mathieu Ravignat NDP Pontiac, QC

Has Australia ever changed the start and end dates of its financial year?

5:05 p.m.

Former Clerk of the Australian Senate, As an Individual

Harry Evans

No, it hasn't changed the date, not for decades anyway, on which the financial year starts. But originally we had a rather crazy system whereby the appropriation bills were not introduced until after the start of the financial year. Supply bills were introduced to deal with the first few months of the financial year until the appropriation bills were passed.

That was abandoned a number of years ago, and the appropriation bills and the estimates now come forward in advance of July 1.

5:05 p.m.

NDP

Mathieu Ravignat NDP Pontiac, QC

Given your extensive experience in this area, I would like to ask you the following question.

Thinking broadly, or even dreaming a little, what changes would you make to make the process for considering supply more efficient?

5:05 p.m.

Former Clerk of the Australian Senate, As an Individual

Harry Evans

I wouldn't basically change the system that we have now. I think it could be made more efficient by senators making more use of the process of signalling to departments in advance what they're going to ask about and by the research staff briefing senators more thoroughly.

Senators, like politicians everywhere, are short of time. Time is of the essence, and you have to fit in with the times they have available. So basically I would improve the briefing process and the process of notifying departments in advance.

5:05 p.m.

NDP

Mathieu Ravignat NDP Pontiac, QC

Thank you, Mr. Evans.

5:05 p.m.

NDP

The Chair NDP Pat Martin

Thank you, Mr. Ravignat.

I think we have time for one last round of questioning.

We'll go to Ms. Kelly Block, from the Conservatives.

April 4th, 2012 / 5:05 p.m.

Conservative

Kelly Block Conservative Saskatoon—Rosetown—Biggar, SK

Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.

I would like to join my colleagues in welcoming you and thanking you for joining us, Mr. Evans.

My colleague previous to me has noted that there have been many studies conducted on the issues around the budgeting and estimates process and that few changes have been made. My understanding is that this transcends governments, that it isn't necessarily an issue for a specific government.

In fact, we heard from a former member of Parliament here in Canada, a Liberal member, that this process can be a very partisan process. I'm wondering whether you could comment on that. Is that the experience in the House of Representatives there?

5:05 p.m.

Former Clerk of the Australian Senate, As an Individual

Harry Evans

As I said before, it can be a very partisan process. Things that are highly controversial are often subject to very partisan questioning. You often get disorderly events in committees, in which non-government senators are seeking to expose the failings of particular projects and the government senators are trying to defend them, and they become a bit heated about them. That's the way free politics work: things are controversial and they get seriously probed. Senators defending their government and defending the programs is all part of the accountability process. It all adds to accountability.

I say to public servants, this is a tough process; this is something you as public servants have to get used to. You have to jump into the swamp of politics, as it were, along with all the crocodiles and perform your tasks in that setting. If you can do that, you're good public servants.

5:10 p.m.

Conservative

Kelly Block Conservative Saskatoon—Rosetown—Biggar, SK

I would have to say that I think all of the members around this table truly want to conduct this study and come up with some solutions that aren't partisan in nature and that would see some very meaningful work done and some meaningful recommendations implemented. This is why we've brought in witnesses such as you: we want to understand what best practices are being implemented in other countries.

If someone asked you what you feel the best practices are that have been implemented in your budgeting and estimates process, what would you say?

5:10 p.m.

Former Clerk of the Australian Senate, As an Individual

Harry Evans

Certainly the presentation of the budget, the estimates, and the approprials in advance of the financial year is a good idea. Certainly the way in which all government expenditure has been covered in the estimates and opened up for examination was a big change, and it's a change that came about by evolution, basically.

Those were the principal major changes that greatly improved the process. The introduction of the supplementary estimates hearings was a big improvement. They are the major changes. As I said, they came about as a result of the Senate and governments reacting to the process as it evolved.

I don't think you can take the partisanship and the politics out of this process. There will always be partisanship in the process. People will always be inclined to concentrate on controversial things and to probe those more thoroughly. But that's all part of accountability.

5:10 p.m.

Conservative

Kelly Block Conservative Saskatoon—Rosetown—Biggar, SK

Thank you.

5:10 p.m.

NDP

The Chair NDP Pat Martin

Thank you, Kelly.

We've had a request for just one question from the Liberals.

John, can you put something very quickly?

5:10 p.m.

Liberal

John McCallum Liberal Markham—Unionville, ON

In the context of the last discussion, you talk as if the Senate is independent of the government, that when the Australian Senate makes a decision, the government can make representations, but it's really up to the Senate, not the government. I would say that here the decisions of the Senate are largely determined by the government.

Does the Senate in Australia have a role that is highly independent of government?

5:10 p.m.

Former Clerk of the Australian Senate, As an Individual

Harry Evans

Usually, yes. The Senate is elected under a system of proportional representation. Usually no party has a majority. Things have to be done by cooperation among parties or different parties coming together. That's been the situation over many years. As a result, this process that I've been describing has been worked out over many years by consultation among parties and government, and parties in the Senate working out what's best to meet their own interests.

It's an entirely different sort of house to the Canadian Senate, I must say.

5:10 p.m.

Liberal

John McCallum Liberal Markham—Unionville, ON

Thank you very much.

5:10 p.m.

NDP

The Chair NDP Pat Martin

Thank you, John.

Thank you, Mr. Evans. On behalf of all the members of the committee and all three parties represented, we want to thank you very much for giving us your time.

I don't know if committee members realize, but it was 6:30 a.m. down under, and Mr. Evans agreed to join us today and share with us some of the expertise gleaned after 21 years of serving as the Clerk of the Australian Senate.

A witness to this committee from yesterday, Mr. Bob Marleau, sends his greetings, sir. When he learned that you were about to give testimony he was very pleased and very interested in that.

We're earnestly trying to make our system more understandable for members of Parliament so we can do our due diligence, and your input today has been very useful and very well appreciated.

Thank you for being with us, sir.