Opposition members may gain temporary glory by raising critical questions, but the inattention of the media and public to committee proceedings on estimates is so profound that these moments remain invisible in the ridings. It is implausible, to say the least, that electoral support in the ridings can be influenced by labour on spending estimates in Ottawa.
The fact that governments view the estimates as matters of confidence, given that they reflect the financial intentions of the government, underlies the incentive problem, along, I suppose, with the current level of party discipline. Under majority conditions, there is really nothing for committees to do with the estimates that might actually change spending plans, and under minority government scenarios, as we have recently seen, the theoretical possibility of changes is inevitably wound up with strategic calculations about bringing the government down rather than being about the substance of the estimates.
I have a section here called “Recent Reforms” that I'm going to treat in a more summary way. It basically makes the point that the major recent reform is the restructuring of reporting to Parliament and the creation of a theoretical future-year focus in the RPPs, which committees can study and make recommendations on outside the constraints of the estimates. That's the major development since that time. But committees have shown singularly little appetite for that kind of study, and I think it's because the basic incentives or disincentives I just reviewed have not changed. Also, this new future-oriented study concept—that just comes out of the Treasury Board Secretariat, actually—requires committees to engage in a level of delayed gratification about their work that is very optimistic about the kind of political timeframes that dominate members' behaviour, because these future-oriented studies won't even come into play until a year or more down the road. It's only then that the results will be visible.
What is to be done?
The dynamics of the Westminster model suggest that even in more attractive formats, with more interesting content, the overwhelming portion of information generated by Parliament about spending will continue to be greeted with seeming indifference by Parliament.
However, beneath the indifference, in committees and elsewhere, there is continuous attentiveness to the possibility of exceptional cases—sponsorships, F-35s, and so on—that have a high level of political resonance. When Parliament becomes seized with these issues, its appetite for relevant information becomes extremely intense and rapidly goes far beyond anything available in the formal estimates reports.
This brings me to my first recommendation. Attempts to improve Parliament’s effectiveness in scrutinizing government spending should focus on what Parliament actually does rather than on what we have traditionally thought it should do.
Parliament’s attention to government spending is issue-driven and highly episodic. The critical improvement challenge is thus the availability of information when needed by Parliament rather than the fine-tuning of formal reports or the attempt to redeem the formal estimates process by means of procedural tweaking.
In the committees, the estimates process will continue to be about looking for issues rather than about actually changing government spending. A flexible online resource that allows MPs and staff to drill down to individual activities and get a concrete picture of planned costs, or what is being accomplished and what the present costs are, should be the priority.
Such a resource might occasionally be useful for the consideration of estimates. More importantly, it could support attention to government spending outside the estimates process, where most parliamentary action actually happens now. It should be designed with that role in mind.
I want to just mention here that a lot of the basis for this already exists in the Treasury Board Secretariat in something called the program activity architecture, which you may have heard about from previous witnesses. It basically requires departments to organize their programming in a hierarchical form. They start at the top, with the outcomes to which they contribute, then move to the programs, then move to activities, sub-activities, and sub-sub-activities, where appropriate.
In theory, that drill-down environment is already there. It just needs to be made available to Parliament.
Second, although the idea has traditionally been anathema to governments, a capacity of this resource to break out activities and spending on a riding-by-riding basis is also needed. Yes, this will predictably produce a great deal of posturing about real or imagined inequities. But it would enable questions relevant to Canadians to be asked. Facts would be provided and explanations given. Ultimately, this is a healthy thing.
My second major point is that the existing structure of estimates needs to be replaced with something that reflects what Parliament actually does and, if the argument I have outlined is correct, will continue to do.
Why not integrate the estimates votes into a single vote on a government spending plan? After all, is this not in the bottom line what Parliament does? Parliament concurs in the estimates every year. Why do you need multiple and, in many cases, treacherously obscure votes to accomplish this?
The spending plan could include any limitations on making funding authorities transferred among what are now separately voted items that are appropriate to ensure that the government doesn't have just a free hand to shunt money back and forth at will. It could also include any principles or guidelines currently used by Treasury Board Secretariat in assessing departmental submissions for reallocating money during the fiscal year. This approach would reflect the modern reality that substantive spending control is actually done by governments, with parliamentary endorsement, rather than—as the phrase “the power of the purse” seems still to suggest to many—by Parliament itself. Furthermore, it could actually strengthen parliamentary and public knowledge about how spending control happens.
A modern supply process should take Parliament seriously, and this includes relieving it from ritual tasks that are too often incomprehensible to MPs. Political accountability is by its nature not a systematic process, but is highly selective based on the political importance of singular issues.
Parliament is uniquely the institution that can do this: selecting issues that are important to the public, holding governments accountable for what they are doing or failing to do, and providing through the contrast between government and opposition positions a very public counterweight to the tendency towards groupthink that is otherwise a pervasive feature of modern institutional life.
I think we should be more appreciative of the political accountability delivered by our Westminster model of Parliament and less troubled by the absence of a more systematic, non-partisan kind of accountability in the committees.
Thank you very much.