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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

4:35 p.m.

NDP

The Chair NDP Pat Martin

Thank you, Denis. That concludes your time.

Thank you, Mr. Evans.

For the ruling party, the Conservative Party, there are five minutes for Mr. Peter Braid.

April 4th, 2012 / 4:35 p.m.

Conservative

Peter Braid Conservative Kitchener—Waterloo, ON

Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.

Welcome to Mr. Evans. It's great to have you here with us to assist us with our study.

I'm curious to know, how long has the current estimates review and approval process that exists in Australia been in place? Has Australia gone through any form of renewal or refinement process with respect to the estimates review and approval?

4:40 p.m.

Former Clerk of the Australian Senate, As an Individual

Harry Evans

This process has been going on since 1970. In 1970 the Senate introduced estimates hearings, but a lot of changes have happened to the process over that period. It's become much more elaborate.

The introduction of the supplementary hearings, for example, was one great change. The explanatory notes provided by departments have become more and more detailed and elaborate. The preparation that goes on before the estimates hearings has become much more intense and focused. The process on a superficial view remains the same. You have the hearings, and the estimates process is basically the same, but a much more intensive effort has gone into the process along the way.

The process of taking questions on notice by departments has greatly expanded. They take a lot of questions on notice, both before and during the hearings, and they present very detailed written answers in the course of the hearings and after the hearings. Senators complain that departments are not fast enough in getting their written answers in, but they are certainly very detailed when they present them.

4:40 p.m.

Conservative

Peter Braid Conservative Kitchener—Waterloo, ON

What type of detail and information is provided in the explanatory notes you've referred to?

4:40 p.m.

Former Clerk of the Australian Senate, As an Individual

Harry Evans

It's very detailed. These things are very voluminous. The explanatory notes for all the departments amount to a stack a couple of metres high, if you put them all together. The senators focus on the things they're interested in. There will be elaborate explanations of programs that don't attract any attention, simply because people are pretty familiar with them, they understand what they're about, and they're not the focus of attention. They are presented every year, nonetheless, in great detail.

Senators arrive, they go through the explanatory notes and the things they're interested in, and they ask detailed questions. They're able to get down to hundred-dollar amounts, if they really want to. It's a matter of their focusing on the things they're interested in. The departments also expand their explanations of things that they know, from past experience, senators are interested in. If they have a program they know senators are particularly interested in, they expand their explanation of that program.

4:40 p.m.

Conservative

Peter Braid Conservative Kitchener—Waterloo, ON

With respect to the authorities that parliamentarians have in Australia when reviewing the estimates, what specific authority do parliamentarians have, in terms of approving, not approving, reallocating...? Are there specific parameters?

4:40 p.m.

Former Clerk of the Australian Senate, As an Individual

Harry Evans

The committees, of course, have the power to summon witnesses, which they don't normally do. The departmental people and the ministers just turn up.

In relation to the bills themselves, the committees have no power to amend the bills. They can only make recommendations in relation to the bills. The Senate itself can amend the bills, reject the bills, but that is very infrequent.

There have been occasions when the Senate has declined to pass the bill until more information is provided. Amendments have been moved to bills to express difficulty with particular programs, but amendments are very rare. Mostly the appropriation bills go through unamended.

The whole purpose of this process is to refocus departments and the government on programs that might have difficulties. If you have something that's really controversial, that is really difficult, and there's a great deal of opposition to it, it may be the subject of an amendment or even a rejection, but that's very rare.

4:40 p.m.

NDP

The Chair NDP Pat Martin

That's about it for your time, I'm afraid, Peter. Thank you very much.

For the official opposition, Mathieu Ravignat has five minutes.

4:40 p.m.

NDP

Mathieu Ravignat NDP Pontiac, QC

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Thank you for being with us, Mr. Evans.

I find the model of your elected Senate very interesting, but I wanted to ask you a question about the documents that are available to parliamentarians. I understand that the committee members can consult the Auditor General's report and the departments' corporate plans and annual reports in their consideration of estimates. Do parliamentarians routinely use these documents?

4:45 p.m.

Former Clerk of the Australian Senate, As an Individual

Harry Evans

The Auditor General's reports are certainly one of the main sources of questioning at estimates hearings. If the Auditor General has found difficulties with a particular program, waste or inefficiency, certainly senators will focus on those programs and have detailed questions about them.

The committees are also able to ask the Auditor General for further details and specific reports on specific subjects.

The Senate itself has passed resolutions asking for detailed audit reports on particular programs and parts of departments.

The audit process and the auditor's reports are certainly a very major source, and these audit reports are performance reports. They're not just checking the figures; they're looking at the performance of departments and agencies and their efficiency.

4:45 p.m.

NDP

Mathieu Ravignat NDP Pontiac, QC

I note that committees may also seek advice or briefings from the office of the Auditor General. Could you give us an example of the type of information that is sought?

4:45 p.m.

Former Clerk of the Australian Senate, As an Individual

Harry Evans

If senators are interested in a particular program, maybe because the Auditor General has commented on it before, there are two ways of doing it. Either the committee can ask for further written information from the Auditor General, a further report on the particular matter, or officers of the audit office can appear before the committee and answer questions about particular programs and parts of departments that have had difficulties with their performance and their efficiency. So those are two ways the committees can interact with the auditor's office.

4:45 p.m.

NDP

Mathieu Ravignat NDP Pontiac, QC

Still on the topic of the information that is available to committees, we wonder about the usefulness of the information available to our committee. That is what is behind my questions. In any case, I also noted that departments' annual reports are automatically referred to the appropriate committees for examination and report.

In your institution, they can be considered in conjunction with the additional estimates. Can you tell us a bit more about how the timing works with respect to the review of these annual reports?

4:45 p.m.

Former Clerk of the Australian Senate, As an Individual

Harry Evans

Certainly those reports are open for examination at the estimates hearings, and a lot of questions are based on those annual reports. But there's also a system whereby these committees look at particular annual reports within their subject areas and report on them, and they can do that at any time of the year. They can take up particular matters out of annual reports any time of the year, hold separate hearings on those particular matters, and use the annual reports as the basis of, in effect, separate inquiries into particular matters that appear in those annual reports.

One particular committee, the committee on finance and public administration, has the duty of examining those annual reports and checking whether they come up to the prescribed standards of annual reports. That work, as you can imagine, is very largely done by the staff of the committee, but that committee has the specific task of checking that annual reports come up to the expected standard.

4:45 p.m.

NDP

The Chair NDP Pat Martin

That's about it for your time, Mathieu, so we'll say thank you very much for that.

Next, for the Conservatives, is Mr. Mike Wallace.

4:45 p.m.

Conservative

Mike Wallace Conservative Burlington, ON

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Thank you, Mr. Evans, for joining us today.

I have four or five questions, and I'm going to go fairly quickly.

Your estimates are presented on a program basis. Here they're on an aggregate basis. They are just straight numbers across the board. There's very little about each program.

If a program crosses departmental lines—for example, human resources helps pay for something, but other departments do too—is it indicated in the information provided to the committee who is actually responsible for that program and where all the parts are?

4:50 p.m.

Former Clerk of the Australian Senate, As an Individual

Harry Evans

Yes, certainly. That's spelled out in the explanatory notes. And both departments can be called on to explain those particular programs. It's a good way of checking, of course, and cross-comparing on the program.

4:50 p.m.

Conservative

Mike Wallace Conservative Burlington, ON

If the committee is the human resources committee, which I'll use as an example, but other departments are also doing work, that committee can call that bureaucratic staff to come and talk to that committee about it. Is that correct?

4:50 p.m.

Former Clerk of the Australian Senate, As an Individual

Harry Evans

Oh yes, certainly. And committees can arrange between themselves which committee is going to deal with a particular program that is spread across departments.

4:50 p.m.

Conservative

Mike Wallace Conservative Burlington, ON

I'm assuming that the presentation talks about what the program was designed to do and what the outcome is. It's not just a matter of the financial accounting. If it's trying to meet some sort of social goal or whatever the goal might be, that's included in the program review. It's not just that we were able to spend x dollars with this many people.

Am I right about that?

4:50 p.m.

Former Clerk of the Australian Senate, As an Individual

Harry Evans

Yes, exactly. It talks about the aims and the effective use of the program and whether it's achieving its aims.

I should say that program budgeting is not the term used now for budgeting, but people still talk about programs or projects in departments.

4:50 p.m.

Conservative

Mike Wallace Conservative Burlington, ON

Are the actual numbers for the estimates presented on an accrual basis or on a cash basis?

4:50 p.m.

Former Clerk of the Australian Senate, As an Individual

Harry Evans

They are on an accrual basis.

4:50 p.m.

Conservative

Mike Wallace Conservative Burlington, ON

We have a system here, sir, that if a committee doesn't look at their estimates, they're deemed approved. They go back to the House for a vote to be approved. Is that a possibility in Australia? If your committee doesn't have a chance to look at the estimates that have been presented, what happens to them? Or do they have to look at them?

4:50 p.m.

Former Clerk of the Australian Senate, As an Individual

Harry Evans

Well, they don't necessarily look at all departments and all programs. Sometimes a department will be passed over without questioning, because there's nothing there the committee wishes to examine. That's pretty rare.

Most departments get a run, but the committees sometimes feel that they don't have enough time to deal with particular things. They report that to the Senate. Basically, that's taken up at the next round of estimates hearings. At the supplementary hearings or the additional estimates hearings, they're taken up again. But the committees have no power to approve or not approve the estimates. They simply report to the Senate on matters they're interested in. It's up to the Senate to actually pass the appropriation bills.