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 #42 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 estimates.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Peter Dobell  Founding Director, The Parliamentary Centre, As an Individual
Martin Ulrich  Independant Consultant, As an Individual
Peter DeVries  Consultant, Budgetary Affairs, 3D Policy, As an Individual

4:20 p.m.

Independant Consultant, As an Individual

Martin Ulrich

You asked two other questions. One is on how you would go about informing, educating, in a sense, members of other committees about the importance of the estimates process. I thought Peter is by far in the best position to answer that. He's been in the business for a long time.

The other question you asked had to do with what's called the budget in Canada, and the estimates, which in every other country in the world is also part of the budget. I'm exaggerating. In many countries of the world it's brought together and they seem to be able to do it. My guess is—but I don't know—for the countries that do have it together, I don't get the impression that they do a whole lot better job. I'm not sure why that is.

But I do think in the parliamentary system we have, where the government is going to fall if you don't approve their budget, that most of the time it's not going to fall. Most of the time they won't accept these things. You have to be looking at the estimates in a lot longer term than the process of “it's this week to do it”. It's those MPs, and there were a number of them in past Parliaments—I could name them—who took two or three years to get a very important change made. I think in the estimates process, all the parliamentary dynamics say, “Work, work, work. We have to get it done today”, and that's exactly the wrong thing. You have to see it as a longer term job and develop expertise among the different members of your party.

One of the MPs at the time was a member of the Liberal Party. And the Liberal Party was taking an awful lot of public heat and was called all kinds of nasty things for always voting with the government. I got to know him quite well. There were some votes that made no sense whatever to me, so I asked him, “How come you vote for these stupid things?” He said, “Well, do you know how many votes I make in a year in the House?” I don't know the number. He said 3,000. I have no idea. He said, “I can only personally study about 30 issues in depth. What do you do when you don't have enough time to do something? You go to the people you trust and they happen to be your party colleagues. So if I'm voting with them, it's not all that surprising, is it?” I had to agree that, no, it's not.

4:20 p.m.

NDP

Pat Martin NDP Winnipeg Centre, MB

Kelly, that's it. We're well over time. Thank you very much.

Next for the Liberals, John McCallum, speaking of Liberals.

4:20 p.m.

Liberal

John McCallum Liberal Markham—Unionville, ON

Thank you, and welcome to you this afternoon.

You touched on the deemed approved issue a few minutes ago, and how for reasons we heard it might not be a good idea to get rid of that. You mentioned the importance of having people with some experience on the committee. But I think we heard that in some jurisdictions they have a minimum number of hours that the estimates have to be studied for. Would that be a good innovation to our system?

4:20 p.m.

Founding Director, The Parliamentary Centre, As an Individual

Peter Dobell

I would say a few hours isn't going to make much difference. What I really think is important is to get yourselves the kind of support that the Parliamentary Budget Officer can give and to give that person some direction to prepare material so then in a short period of time, you can make—

4:20 p.m.

Liberal

John McCallum Liberal Markham—Unionville, ON

So you would not impose minimum numbers of hours for estimates of different kinds.

4:20 p.m.

Founding Director, The Parliamentary Centre, As an Individual

Peter Dobell

I don't think so.

4:20 p.m.

Liberal

John McCallum Liberal Markham—Unionville, ON

Okay.

Next question. In terms of this idea of doing estimates by programs that you've been talking about, I'm interested in how large or small these programs should be, because we have heard that in some jurisdictions nothing much might change. You might have estimates done for the Department of National Defence and then you just change the title to defence program, for example, and nothing really changes. Or you might have programs that overlap departments, which might produce other issues. Within Defence, you could have anywhere from one to 100 programs I suppose. What's the degree of specificity or the approximate number of such programs that you would have in mind to be effective?

4:25 p.m.

Independant Consultant, As an Individual

Martin Ulrich

I don't know if it would work to specify that kind of thing. But, for instance, the agriculture department has an enormously huge program and it's clear there are quite diverse things that they're trying to do. I think it's the diversity rather than size that is the greater issue. Many of the really big programs, other than Defence, are the ones that are statutory anyway and therefore not formally part of the estimates voting process.

Peter mentioned the situation with the gun control. That was a clear case of where a program that had been distinct, it had been in three or four departments, ultimately got put into the justice department and the justice department is a bunch of lawyers advising the government. You would think this is kind of a clear case where you wouldn't want to mix gun control, which is a whole bunch of techies setting up a database, with legal people who are providing advice to the government. They're hugely distinct.

Yet the way the government of the day did it is they just threw it all together in a single pot and nobody on any committee paid any attention to it. I knew the chair of the committee at the time. It was the justice committee that looked at those estimates and passed them without any.... They sent a nice sweet report saying, we're happy with everything. I asked him why he didn't make this distinction, and he said that they didn't pay any attention.

4:25 p.m.

Liberal

John McCallum Liberal Markham—Unionville, ON

I don't understand how we would get to the bottom of a thing like that unless the gun control was isolated. But if you don't know it's a problem to begin with until you investigate it, how would you know which things in which departments to isolate because you can be sure that those in the departments would be trying to hide transgressions from people like us? I don't really understand how this working by programs will enable us to discover problems quicker than would otherwise be the case.

4:25 p.m.

Independant Consultant, As an Individual

Martin Ulrich

I don't recall if it's in any of these, but what I certainly recommended over the years was that this would be the kind of staff work whereby a financial group would work with each of the committees, as we advise elsewhere, to look at what would be the best way to sort this out, get the committee's view as to what are the kinds of chunks—without getting into 400 different programs—that make sense of them, and get the advice of the politicians who have to go back to their communities and talk to their constituents. I think it's part of the political process. It's not a techie thing, but I think you need techies to help you do it.

4:25 p.m.

Liberal

John McCallum Liberal Markham—Unionville, ON

Thank you.

4:25 p.m.

NDP

Pat Martin NDP Winnipeg Centre, MB

That concludes your time, John.

The final questioner on this round will be Scott Armstrong. You have five minutes, Scott.

4:25 p.m.

Conservative

Scott Armstrong Conservative Cumberland—Colchester—Musquodoboit Valley, NS

Thank you Mr. Chair.

I'll beg off for a couple of seconds and acknowledge that I'm sitting in a wheelchair today because today's the day on Parliament where MPs walk a mile in somebody else's shoes by rolling along in a wheelchair and try to see what it's like to be a disabled person. For people watching at home, that is why I'm in a wheelchair. I haven't fallen down the stairs or anything.

I'm going to start with the Parliamentary Budget Officer. Mr. Dobell, you had mentioned in previous reports and some ideas you had in the past that we need to add more resources to this committee for us to effectively do our jobs and drill down and provide proper oversight.

Then, in testimony today, you talked about the Parliamentary Budget Officer and commented that maybe it's been too politicized because of the way it's structured and the way it's set up. Is it your opinion that adding resources to this committee through the current Parliamentary Budget Officer, having them answer to this committee, that would be an effective way to increase the resources that we have here to provide proper oversight? Could you expand on that a bit?

4:25 p.m.

Founding Director, The Parliamentary Centre, As an Individual

Peter Dobell

I certainly think so. One of the things I'm terribly conscious of as an outsider is the enormous pressure that each of you as members of Parliament are exposed to. I can remember in 1980 when, for the first time, constituency offices were funded. Up till then members weren't spending as much time on their constituency. That suddenly took another block of time.

One of the reasons I'm personally in favour of a large office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer is that those people have the training. If you say these are things I'm concerned about, they can get the information, bring it to your attention privately, as the committee even, and then you can go into it. But you don't have the time yourselves. You're all so busy. Even if you have some good people working for you, these are hugely complicated areas, and as Martin was pointing out, it takes a long time to cut your way through.

4:30 p.m.

Conservative

Scott Armstrong Conservative Cumberland—Colchester—Musquodoboit Valley, NS

Thanks.

The process, as it is now, if we don't make changes, it's formed like an umbrella where we see huge amounts of dollars from departments and it's very hard for us to drill down. The Parliamentary Budget Officer does have resources they can use to actually drill down. If you combine that with your push towards looking at this from a program perspective, we can actually drill down inside specific programs that the federal government implements and take a look at what's actually happening there. If we had those resources, do you think we'd be very capable, as a central committee of operations and estimates, of providing more proper oversight?

4:30 p.m.

Founding Director, The Parliamentary Centre, As an Individual

Peter Dobell

It would be particularly so if you remain on the committee and don't get sent off to other committees because the other thing, of course, is that frankly we don't have enough members of Parliament to staff or to be participating in all of the committees. There are a number of your colleagues who are serving on two or sometimes even three committees. That means they don't have much time to work on any of it.

4:30 p.m.

Conservative

Scott Armstrong Conservative Cumberland—Colchester—Musquodoboit Valley, NS

So, what you would like to see is, especially on this particular committee, operations and estimates, more of a consistent membership on the committee for both sides—both the opposition and the government. Maybe it would be the only committee they would sit on with the resources from the Parliamentary Budget Officer, where they're really focusing just on this oversight and they wouldn't be as distracted from other parliamentary duties.

4:30 p.m.

Founding Director, The Parliamentary Centre, As an Individual

Peter Dobell

And the additional advantage is that you would become friends. In other words, even though you have different political perceptions, you can still respect each other and learn from each other. That's what I think is important, to be here for a long period of time.

4:30 p.m.

Conservative

Scott Armstrong Conservative Cumberland—Colchester—Musquodoboit Valley, NS

How much time do I have?

4:30 p.m.

NDP

Pat Martin NDP Winnipeg Centre, MB

You have just about 30 seconds actually, Scott.

4:30 p.m.

Conservative

Scott Armstrong Conservative Cumberland—Colchester—Musquodoboit Valley, NS

Just really quickly, do you have any other ideas of how we can depoliticize the estimates and supply system that we currently have?

4:30 p.m.

Founding Director, The Parliamentary Centre, As an Individual

Peter Dobell

Not anymore than I've already suggested....

4:30 p.m.

Conservative

Scott Armstrong Conservative Cumberland—Colchester—Musquodoboit Valley, NS

Okay. Thank you very much.

Thank you Mr. Chair.

May 2nd, 2012 / 4:30 p.m.

NDP

Pat Martin NDP Winnipeg Centre, MB

Thank you Scott.

That concludes one full round and that pretty much wraps up our hour. I want to thank both of our guests, Mr. Peter Dobell and Mr. Martin Ulrich, for sharing their views with us. The papers that you have published will be of use to this committee and form part of the body of research that we're doing.

Let me also say you made reference a couple of times to what John Williams had done in his years here in terms of scrutiny and oversight. Later today will be the founding of the Canadian chapter of the global organization of parliamentarians against corruption, CANPAC. Even though it started here, it's a lot more robust elsewhere in the world currently, and we're trying to reconstitute it here in this country. So it's at 6 p.m. today in room 340-S of Centre Block. All current and former MPs and Senators are welcome. I think it would be a very worthwhile thing for all of us on this committee to belong to. It has such an overlapping interest of making robust oversight and scrutiny part of parliamentary democracy.

Thank you so much for your time, gentlemen. It's a great pleasure to have you here. We will certainly benefit from what you've shared with us today. Thank you.

4:30 p.m.

Founding Director, The Parliamentary Centre, As an Individual

Peter Dobell

What we're looking for is your report, having a good report.