Thank you, Mr. Chair.
Good afternoon, everyone.
I'm going to go into a bit more depth, particularly on the study for the Institute for Research on Public Policy. I think that is a bit dated now. It's almost 10 years old. It was one thing where we looked at, not the estimates in particular, but government oversight of financial management very generally. One of the reasons for that, as you all know, is that this was an issue internationally, not just in Canada. At the time, there was a lot of criticism of Parliament in the academic world, in the media, and so on.
We wanted to get into that subject in depth, so we took all the studies of all the committees during one calendar year. We identified those which had, in some way, shape, or form, an oversight of financial management. Both Peter and I met with members of all the parties at that time. I would say it wasn't a random sample by any means. We chose people who had been around a longer time and had more experience with the process to essentially get the best advice going.
Out of that process, it became very clear that financial oversight should be looked at on three different levels. One level is the broad, macroeconomic level. That's the overall budget, deficit, and debt—those kinds of things. Another level is the individual transactions—the individual contracts and all those things. Between the kind of control framework that the government had set up at the time, the Financial Administration Act, which provided all kinds of constraints as to how the government could use these funds that were either used through legislation or through votes, and the Auditor General's office doing its audit—there was this middle level, and that was the program or departmental level.
We reported in the paper the clear views of parliamentarians. We, after all those discussions, happened to share those views, but they were not essentially our views. They were the views of people like you, roughly 10 years ago. Their conclusion was that Canada, the Canadian Parliament, and the Canadian House of Commons does a pretty good job at that high, broad level—the aggregates. The budget is a big event in Parliament. There's a lot of preconsultation and so on. At the time, the finance committee was very active in pre-budget consultations. It worked pretty well.
They also had a lot of confidence, even though they didn't get into it a lot, at the individual transaction levels. But that middle level—the one where the estimates are—is the one that essentially did not work. That was not a surprising conclusion, I suppose, but it was nice to know that experienced members of Parliament felt this was the case.
A number of recommendations came out of those discussions, but one that I think is particularly interesting is—I'll use a bit of jargon here because I don't know what other words to use—the control framework. Since it is responsible for voting these funds, how does Parliament assure itself that Canadians have received what the government intended they receive, and that they were done effectively, efficiently, and all those good things?
Over the years, the vote structure and the kinds of things you technically vote on in Parliament have been evolving. As Peter referred to it, there were many cases where, over the years, the government gradually ended up making the votes larger votes. Therefore, when you had a number—when parliamentarians saw a number of x billion dollars for some great, noble purpose, they had absolutely no way of comparing that amount of money with that result.
They asked what they could do. In many ways, that's one of the reasons for the financial analysis service. One of the things we had recommended was that the financial analysis service, working under the direction of this committee, would take a look at that. How do you sort that stuff out to make it sensible? It's not that the government doesn't need flexibility. The government does need flexibility. At the same time, you represent all Canadians. Parliament needs to be able to ensure that it has taken a look at how the government, the big administration, has used that authority and money it has provided.
I think that control framework—largely the centre is the vote structure—is something that really needs to be looked at. Kevin Page certainly recommended that when he advocated that votes be on programs, and I think that is a huge step in the right direction.
A couple of other things came out of that study. One of them was the idea that committees should at least look at indicators. I believe—and as Bob Marleau made very clear—there's a lot of misunderstanding among parliamentarians as to what you have the power to do and what you can get done if you're willing to do so.
You have an enormous amount of power. There's an enormous number of things you can do if you get agreement in committee. We looked at committees, and the estimates were supposedly one of the reasons you should have committees. Well, in this study, we actually documented how much time committees spent on the estimates, and it was a minute amount compared to the other things they did.
Now, if the estimates are as important as certainly we believe and the people we talked to believe, then it might be a thing to think about how you would judge whether committees have performed well in their financial oversight duties. It might be something that this committee, with its overall responsibility for the estimates, might wish to consider.
So that was that study. The only thing I would mention about the sponsorship study we did was that we didn't actually investigate the sponsorship. The question we were asked to address was would it be possible, if Parliament did a better job of its financial oversight, to reduce the odds of something like the sponsorship scandal?
Needless to say, we concluded that certainly parliamentarians could not be said to be responsible for what happened, but certainly they could be said to have not done the kind of oversight that would discourage officials from doing what was evidently done in that case.
So I think the question that was posed in that study was quite a legitimate one. Could parliamentarians be seen as somehow, by not having done their jobs, encouraging bad financial administration? You might want to think about that.
I'll close with four observations that I think are supported by the two studies I'm talking about.
One, it is I think exceedingly important to think about the estimates as not just about money. It is money for a specific public purpose. You have to be able to relate that money to that purpose. If the kind of information you get does not link those two in a way that makes sense to you, then I think you can't really do the process.
In the times when I was in government, which is now more than ten years ago, I worked for the Treasury Board and we had a lot of dealings with Parliament at the time. It worked quite well. It was clear that the officials who worked in government, working with parliamentarians' staff, consulted quite a lot, or at least they were able, in that era, to do it. They were encouraging the parliamentary staff to figure out what parliamentarians actually need for information, and how it should be structured.
Two things came out of that. One was that there really was openness to doing that. The other was that you had to make sure it wasn't just a financial document—it was a financial document related to results that Canadians could understand. Mr. McGee from New Zealand, I believe, emphasized that point, and I would say everything we have done reinforces that.
I was also struck by the comments from Mr. Marleau and Mr. Williams about the authority in parliamentary procedures that you have available. As I read them, it was not that you shouldn't change them; it was that if you think that the solution is through another change in the Standing Orders, odds are it won't work. You have to look beyond that. You have to look at the way things are done, beyond the authorities and the powers and so on.
The vote structure I've already mentioned. What I call the control framework for programs, but whatever you call it, is certainly an area that deserves some attention.
Peter mentioned near the closing of his comments about getting consensus in committees and elsewhere. One of the things I've always been skeptical of is that Mr. Williams mentioned that report of more than a decade ago where there were some suggestions as to changing a certain amount of money that you can vote on. I think that's a delusion. I don't think that's going to help.
I think it's more important to see that it is the government that should control. It has a plan. It's worked it out. It's asked for it. If you don't have confidence in it, then you do what parliamentarians do, but I think to mess around in the detail is not a good thing to do. But all of these studies from 2001—there were 19 studies that had recommendations regarding either change in resources or change in results—were tabled in Parliament. They were sent to committee.
It doesn't change the votes for the specific year, but it does allow for downstream change, and usually, in the past, that has been acceptable to governments to consider.
If you try to change the votes in the year, you're just asking for difficulty. If you try to evolve the process, you might have some sort of success.
I think one of the reasons that estimates have not gotten much attention is that there's too much desire to change the numbers, and if you don't change the numbers, you feel you've failed. Well, if that's the way you feel, it won't work.