Thank you, Mr. Chair.
I want to start off by expressing my condolences and sadness at the loss of our colleague, Gord Brown, yesterday, and to all parliamentarians, because we are part of a broader parliamentary family, but particularly to our Conservative colleagues. I knew Gord well, and Claudine, and this is a great loss. He was a very good person.
Mr. Chair, I'm pleased to be here with you today. I'm thankful for the invitation to talk about the 2018-19 main estimates.
I have with me Taki Sarantakis, the associate secretary of the Treasury Board; Marcia Santiago, the executive director; Renée LaFontaine, the chief financial officer; and Brian Pagan, who's back with us now. Brian broke his leg a few weeks ago playing hockey, but he's back with us now. We're glad to have you back on the ice, as it were, Brian.
On April 16, I tabled the 2018-19 main estimates. These provide information to support the government's request that Parliament approve $276 billion of spending to deliver programs and services in the fiscal year starting April 1, 2018.
Through these main estimates, the government continues to make important investments in Canadians' priorities: growth, progress, reconciliation and advancement, as part of our plan to grow and strengthen Canada's middle class.
We are also living up to the commitments we made before Parliament, and we are doing so in a way that is open, transparent and accountable.
For the first time in recent history, the main estimates include 100% of the measures announced in the budget for this year. This is a major step forward, and it's been made possible, in part, by changing the tabling date of the main estimates to mid-April, after the budget. As a result, parliamentarians now have a document that is relevant and complete, so that they can better hold government to account on how it spends taxpayer dollars. To do this, we have added a new, centrally managed budget implementation vote, TB vote 40, to the main estimates. Parliamentarians can now trace each and every allocation from this new central vote to a specific line in the budget, table A2.11, and in the main estimates, annex 1. This is a level of transparency not available in the previous estimates that parliamentarians have been debating and voting on for years.
We have heard the argument that the legal constraints placed on the use of funds in the budget implementation vote are not sufficiently binding and that the government could use this vote to fund whatever it wants. That is categorically false.
Let me give you an example of how the budget implementation vote works. Budget 2018 proposes a number of important investments, including $154 million to the Department of Health to address the opioid crisis. These funds are reflected in the 2018-19 main estimates budget implementation vote. Let's just say that over the course of the year, the opioid crisis worsened and the government decided it needed to spend more. If the government wanted to increase funding for this, or for any other budget measure identified in the budget implementation vote, a separate funding decision would be required and Parliament would be asked to provide additional approval. To repeat, using the budget implementation vote to exceed the allocations listed would be an unauthorized use of public funds.
Mr. Chair, I've been very clear on this from the very beginning. The main estimates document itself tabled in Parliament says that the budget implementation vote is “for new measures approved and identified in table A2.11” of the budget. This table is also included as an annex to the main estimates.
As our Auditor General has said, the government is bound by those line-by-line allocations. To quote the Auditor General, “You can't just decide somebody else should get more and somebody else can get less. To me, that's not the authority that [the government has] been given by Parliament.”
The Auditor General is right. That's why I've said repeatedly, on the record, that the use of the budget implementation vote is legally binding to the allocations in that table. Exceeding those allocations through this vote cannot happen without additional parliamentary approval.
I spoke to the PBO earlier this week and we discussed the idea of including allocations in the wording of the vote itself for even more clarity and to provide him and Parliament with even greater assurance. Based on that conversation, I'm confident that this will provide the greater certainty that he's looking for. To provide as much clarity as possible, we will be listing the allocations within the appropriation bill itself when it's tabled this spring.
Another element of the PBO's report was the assertion that the budget implementation vote does not allow sufficient oversight by parliamentarians. In fact, parliamentarians not only still have the opportunity to study and vote on the budget and the estimates and the appropriation bills for the main and supplementary estimates. For the first time, they also have at their disposal a detailed disclosure of the measures to be funded from the central vote in both the budget plan and the main estimates.
In other words, for the first time ever, when MPs are voting on the main estimates they will know, initiative by initiative, where the budget money is going. This is a huge step forward for parliamentary oversight.
Parliamentarians will also be able to see allocations to departments and remaining balances for the line-by-line budget measures in monthly reports online and in the next available estimates. Thanks to these important changes, parliamentarians now have more control over government spending than ever before.
Mr. Chair, as you know, in our system of government the ability of parliamentarians to hold the government to account is of the utmost importance. To that end, we have made a number of important improvements. In addition to changing the timing of the main estimates to mid-April so that the budget items can be included, we have also increased transparency by reporting on frozen allotments.
Beginning with the 2015-16 supplementary estimates (C), we now publish an online annex that provides Parliament with an early indication of the lapses expected for the fiscal year. This improvement, the PBO says, “represents an important increase in fiscal transparency, ensuring that parliamentarians are on a less unequal footing with the Government”.
Beginning with the 2016-17 supplementary estimates (A), we also now provide parliamentarians with a reconciliation of the accrual expense forecast in the budget with the cash expenditure forecast through the estimates process. Again, this development has been cited by the PBO as a positive step forward in transparency and in efforts to align the budget and estimates process.
Moreover, we have reformed annual departmental reports so that parliamentarians can get better information on planned spending, expected outcomes, and actual results. On that note, I would encourage the committee to finalize its review of the pilot project on purpose-based votes to address the difficulty parliamentarians have in connecting the money we vote for with the program it will actually be used for. I firmly believe that strengthening the link between votes and the purpose or desired results of a program will further strengthen parliamentary oversight of government spending.
Mr. Chair, I appreciate the opportunity and the invitation to join your committee today. Through the changes I've discussed this morning, we are improving the clarity, transparency, and accountability of government spending. In so doing, we are empowering parliamentarians to hold the government to account for how its spends tax dollars.
I'm looking forward to the questions and the discussion.