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Evidence of meeting #40 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 expenditure.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Allen Schick  Distinguished Professor, School of Public Policy, University of Maryland, As an Individual
Jack Stilborn  Retired, Library of Parliament, As an Individual

5 p.m.

NDP

The Chair NDP Pat Martin

You are well over time, but you can make a brief comment.

5 p.m.

Retired, Library of Parliament, As an Individual

Jack Stilborn

Thank you for those comments.

5 p.m.

NDP

The Chair NDP Pat Martin

Thank you, Linda. That's excellent.

Kelly Block has five minutes.

April 25th, 2012 / 5 p.m.

Conservative

Kelly Block Conservative Saskatoon—Rosetown—Biggar, SK

Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.

I would also like to welcome you here, Mr. Stilborn. This has been a very interesting study. We're coming to the end. As it has been observed by many of my colleagues, we've heard many similar comments and recommendations from our witnesses.

In your opening remarks you stated that a major contributor—I didn't get it exactly right—to the dissatisfaction experienced by MPs, was that the discussions or conversations are heavily dominated by focusing on unexamined assumptions. I'm intrigued by that observation. I'm curious about those unexamined assumptions. Maybe that's where this whole study needed to start. What are we assuming we need to set aside? Then we can start looking for solutions.

I'm wondering if you would follow up on what those unexamined assumptions are that we may be functioning under.

5 p.m.

Retired, Library of Parliament, As an Individual

Jack Stilborn

If you go back to the creation of the standing committee structure, the assumption was that you had this kind of nasty, wild stuff happening on the floor of the House of Commons at the last moment. But if you could create a series of standing committees, with defined, substantive mandates, and then put relatively continuous memberships into them, the members would work in a more collegial, non-partisan way across party lines. They'd get to know each other. They'd get to know the issues much better than existing structures gave them the opportunity to do. And they would have constructive inputs to make on the estimates.

In my view, if you look at the history of the committee system, not so much for estimates but for other things the committees do, there are certainly lots of examples of this expectation having been met to a considerable extent.

At the same time, the reality of the Westminster Parliament, under modern conditions, is that you have parties engaged in ceaseless competition. And that has certainly made its way into the committee structure. You basically have a great deal of the old wine of partisan behaviour in these new bottles. The result has been a fair bit of disillusionment with the standing committees and what they could do as you come forward through the 1980s and 1990s.

I worked for the committees. I think we really had quite a cycle of somewhat unrealistic expectations. I can think of one of the parliamentary reports that fed into the committee reforms that actually anticipated that the committees would take Canada out of the narrow Westminster model and would create a system that was somewhere between congressionalism and Westminster. That was a really ambitious intention, to say the least. Not surprisingly, high expectations have been followed by a measure of disillusionment.

5:05 p.m.

Conservative

Kelly Block Conservative Saskatoon—Rosetown—Biggar, SK

Our previous witness observed that perhaps this system is sufficient. It certainly has lasted a long time. I know that there have been several studies within the last couple of decades, with very little to no change being made to the process.

You have given us a list of recommendations. But if we had to come back and recommend at least one or maybe even two things we could do that would actually move this process from being one of informing to one that is more empowering, what would those two things be?

5:05 p.m.

Retired, Library of Parliament, As an Individual

Jack Stilborn

I hope what I say isn't going to make you too mad at me. I think, within the Westminster model, it's the government that governs. Parliament's role is to scrutinize and debate and hold accountable. So the way you would empower Parliament is to enable it to become more persuasive in the work it does and in the recommendations it makes to government.

The point has been made by other witnesses that there is nothing to stop committees from undertaking to study a program, for example, outside the constraints of the estimates process and to take as long as needed. Presumably, they could come up with recommendations that might be programmatic but might also have to do with spending on the program. If they are really strong recommendations, the optimistic hope always is that the rest of the world will pay enough attention, and the government, for its own reasons, will take these things seriously.

It's an influence role. I wouldn't call it empowerment. That's sort of beyond that. If you do that kind of work well, that influence can, and has in certain cases in the past, with some committees, become quite definite. That would be the one thing, it seems to me. I think it's a question of recognizing that you have to persuade the government to do things and take it from there.

5:05 p.m.

NDP

The Chair NDP Pat Martin

Thank you, Ms. Block.

Thank you, Mr. Stilborn.

That concludes the time. Normally this would be the Liberal's turn. He had to step out for a moment, so we will skip right past him and when he comes in, perhaps we can plug him in.

Ron Cannan would be next in the normal routine.

Are you ready, Ron?

5:05 p.m.

Conservative

Ron Cannan Conservative Kelowna—Lake Country, BC

Yes, thank you, Mr. Chair.

Thanks, Mr. Stilborn.

I'd like to also welcome Ms. Duncan, from my old stomping grounds in Edmonton. It's good to have you on our committee.

Mr. Stillborn, I would like to thank you for your years of service to Parliament. From your years of experience...if one Googles your name, there is a history of all kinds of estimates of Parliament. This isn't something new that is happening. I have studies from 1998 with 52 recommendations, and previously from, I think, 2003. We've had witnesses. John Williams, for example, came and testified.

Out of the previous recommendations I notice one was to have a separate committee established to look specifically at all the estimates. Is that something you would still recommend?

5:05 p.m.

Retired, Library of Parliament, As an Individual

Jack Stilborn

Personally, I can't say that I would, because, again, as I've said, there is something about the word “estimates” that causes a kind of blanching of the complexion of members of Parliament, by and large. You can just see them thinking about what other direction they could go in. That's just my personal experience.

Because of the fact that, again, within the formal estimates process there isn't anything very visible or interesting to be done, for the most part, I'm not sure why you'd create a separate estimates committee, unless there is a sufficient supply of parliamentarians who are in the bad books of their colleagues and you want to send them off to the committee equivalent of Siberia or something.

Anyway, thinking again about what Parliament can do, I think in order to do persuasive work on estimates, first of all, within the constraints—I see many volunteers at this table—of the estimates process, which requires you to send a message back that you can't even explain, I wouldn't be thinking of particularly somehow investing more time or more committee apparatus in the formal estimates process.

But what any committee can do...if there's a program that looks like it warrants study, that can be done outside the estimates process. I think that's where the potential for more influence is.

5:10 p.m.

Conservative

Ron Cannan Conservative Kelowna—Lake Country, BC

Thank you very much for that clarity.

Vote structure. We've had different witnesses talk about looking more at the estimates presented by program activity, and the fact that with more control over the budget process we'd have the ability to vote on the program activities instead of capital and operating votes. This could better link voted items to departmental activities and allow for more meaningful scrutiny by parliamentarians on service level impacts.

5:10 p.m.

Retired, Library of Parliament, As an Individual

Jack Stilborn

To some extent, that question takes me into technical waters I am not qualified to go into, so I won't answer it in detail.

This hierarchical organization, programs and sub-activities and so on, that I was talking about, on the face of it...if that's the information structure that parliamentarians are using, then it would make sense to make the votes as closely related to that as possible, just intuitively. So if you structured the votes in the same way, or using the same language to the extent possible, to me that would make sense.

The only thing I would say is that I'm not sure you even need a structure of multiple votes to do what Parliament currently does with the estimates, which is to concur in them normally.

5:10 p.m.

Conservative

Ron Cannan Conservative Kelowna—Lake Country, BC

Yes, that's a whole other issue, and I'll get into that in a minute if we have time.

The other aspect that Professor Schick commented on was the issue of timing, and how the Americans gave three extra months and all it did was delay the process.

We heard from several witnesses to incorporate the budget bill into the supply bill to make the process more effective. We heard from the countries of Australia and New Zealand; they have that process, and it helped them to understand the effect of the budget on supply. Is that something you'd recommend?

5:10 p.m.

Retired, Library of Parliament, As an Individual

Jack Stilborn

Again, I can't profess to be a technical expert who could give you good advice on the matters that Professor Schick talked about.

My general take is that I don't think that adjusting things at that procedural level has made much of a difference in the past, as far as we can see in Canada. I think we certainly should be attentive to the experience of other countries in case there is something that would work, but I'm not optimistic that as long as the basic incentives stay as they are these different mechanisms are going to be making a significant difference.

5:10 p.m.

NDP

The Chair NDP Pat Martin

That's it for your time, I'm afraid, Ron. You'll have to wait for the next round.

5:10 p.m.

Conservative

Ron Cannan Conservative Kelowna—Lake Country, BC

I've been deemed reported....

5:10 p.m.

NDP

The Chair NDP Pat Martin

That's right. You're deemed done—done like dinner.

Denis Blanchette, for five minutes.

5:10 p.m.

NDP

Denis Blanchette NDP Louis-Hébert, QC

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Welcome, Mr. Stilborn.

Your comments were discouraging. You mentioned motivation, but, in a way, you are not motivating us. Honestly, I found your approach very pessimistic.

If I am not mistaken, you said that, for 50 years, no one has understood how the Westminster model works, and that is why reforms are being made. Nothing is working and everyone is frustrated.

But let us look at it a different way. In the current situation, is the Westminster model out of date? Is it our current way of doing politics, using the Westminster model, that is causing us to have a hard time making the reforms that we as parliamentarians want? Is it not rather that fact that we are presently managing such huge budgets, with about the same staff as we have always had, that is preventing us from adequately overseeing those budgets?

To cut to the chase, should we not just have a monarchy, made up of ministers only? Then we could get back to work doing something else.

5:15 p.m.

Retired, Library of Parliament, As an Individual

Jack Stilborn

First of all, I certainly wouldn't want to be undermining your motivation. I'm sure there are lots of other people available on the Hill who can do that.

5:15 p.m.

Some hon. members

Oh, oh!

5:15 p.m.

Jack Stillborn

What I would say is that I think there are some extremely valuable things that Parliament does that I, as a citizen, value and that no other institution does. I don't think there's any other institution that does it like Parliament, scanning across the whole horizon of government actively looking for issues that warrant public attention and debate for one reason or another. That's valuable.

Basically, an awful lot of what government does is pretty routine, and neither Parliament nor citizens really need to know about it. Citizens will probably never invest the time to do that.

What we need is an institution that is vigilant and sufficiently engaged in governance that it can find those things that need to get further attention. I think that's where Parliament does very valuable work, and we should be thinking about how we could help it do that better.

That's where I come back to the information availability—possibly a database-type proposal.

The second point in the question was whether the Westminster model is outdated. It's very hard to say, frankly.

I think we need to appreciate the merits of the Westminster model, and not dilute it by sliding in congressional elements here and there. I think the expectations around our standing committees bordered on that at an earlier point. Ideas about empowering committees to reallocate a certain portion of funding, for example, go in that same direction.

You have to ask yourself, does that not muddy what is now a relatively clear line of accountability between the government that does these things and Parliament that holds them accountable? Furthermore, if you had 20 standing committees reallocating 10% or 5% here or there in an uncoordinated way, would you actually have better government, and would it even be more democratic?

Personally, I'm skeptical about all of those things. I think that while it is imperfect, our Westminster model has some very important advantages that we need to preserve.

5:15 p.m.

NDP

Denis Blanchette NDP Louis-Hébert, QC

Okay.

So let me ask you a question that is less broad this time.

Our practice is that if, by May 31, the standing committee has not reported to the House, it is deemed to have accepted any proposals as it. What do you think of that? Is that good enough? Should we perhaps be improving the focus of the committees' work in studying the budget, so that the job can be done in the time we are given?

5:15 p.m.

Retired, Library of Parliament, As an Individual

Jack Stilborn

Basically, the “deeming” rule was put into place I think right back at the beginning of the standing committee structure in 1968, but I'm not 100% sure about that. If you don't have some way of ensuring that the estimates get back out of the committees to the floor of the House, then you open the door to all sorts of tactical games within the committees to avoid having votes on them and to delaying and possibly kind of gumming up the larger parliamentary consideration of the estimates. Those activities wouldn't necessarily have to do with the substance of the estimates; they could have to do with almost anything.

So the deeming rule is basically a way of ensuring that the whole process isn't brought to a halt by what would amount to filibustering. I think that's valid. If Parliament decides to bring the estimates process to a stop, either in some small way or more broadly, that's its right to do, but it should be done on the substance of the estimates and not as a result of some kind of clever tactics in a committee.

The second point—and it goes back to this basic mantra about incentives—is that if committees are not motivated to look seriously at the estimates, then deeming or not deeming really doesn't make much of a difference. So you just do what allows the system to keep working, I think.

5:20 p.m.

NDP

The Chair NDP Pat Martin

Thank you, Denis.

Thank you, Mr. Stilborn.

Bernard Trottier, go ahead for five minutes.

5:20 p.m.

Conservative

Bernard Trottier Conservative Etobicoke—Lakeshore, ON

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Thank you, Mr. Stilborn, for coming in today.

I think you mentioned a few times that there have been quite a few witnesses here with similar points of view. I'll say also that it's been refreshing to work on this committee, in the sense that there's a lot of agreement on both sides of the committee, the government side and the opposition side; we both have a desire to inject more transparency and openness and accountability, maybe for different reasons. There's motivation, say, on the opposition side to look at exposing the government. I think on our side there's a desire to hold the bureaucracy, deputy ministers and so on, to account. Ultimately, these lead to the same objectives of having more effective government.

I just wanted to talk about one issue around the timing of the budget in this Westminster system. One of the challenges, of course, is minority parliaments. If we tried to always have a budget in lockstep with the main estimates, when you look at the Canadian Parliament in the 21st century, which has governments falling on a budget practically every other year, you wouldn't be able to actually have a budget that could then be tied to the main estimates. Do you see that as a major challenge?

As I think you were saying, the Westminster system isn't perfect, but to paraphrase Winston Churchill, democracy is a terrible system, but it's better than all the others. Therefore, maybe this committee shouldn't focus so much on the timing of the budget and on trying to reconcile that with the main estimates, just because this inherent challenge would mean that in some years the budget would just not get passed.