Evidence of meeting #131 for Government Operations and Estimates in the 42nd Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was budget.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Clerk of the Committee  Mr. Patrick Williams
Jean-Denis Fréchette  Parliamentary Budget Officer, Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer
Mostafa Askari  Deputy Parliamentary Budget Officer, Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer
Jason Stanton  Financial Analyst, Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer
Matthew Shea  Chief Financial Officer and Assistant Deputy Minister, Corporate Services, Privy Council Office
Marian Campbell Jarvis  Assistant Secretary to the Cabinet, Social Development Policy, Privy Council Office
Rodney Ghali  Assistant Secretary to the Cabinet, Impact and Innovation Unit, Privy Council Office
Shawn Tupper  Assistant Secretary to the Cabinet, Economic and Regional Development Policy, Privy Council Office

11:45 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Tom Lukiwski

Thank you, Mr. Peterson.

Mr. McCauley, go ahead for five minutes, please.

11:45 a.m.

Conservative

Kelly McCauley Conservative Edmonton West, AB

Thank you, Chair.

Gentlemen and lady, vote 40, on eligible programs, includes top line items without details for “Ensuring Security and Prosperity in the Digital Age” and “Pursuing New Markets”. What do these items mean to you as a financial analyst? Would you consider such a line to be detailed enough for parliamentarians to vote on and approve, or is this more aspirational language that's put in there and gets approved without oversight as to how the money is actually spent?

11:45 a.m.

Deputy Parliamentary Budget Officer, Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer

Mostafa Askari

Obviously, some of that description has to come through the budget process and the budget plan.

11:45 a.m.

Conservative

Kelly McCauley Conservative Edmonton West, AB

That's actually part of the budget. Those were lines taken right from table A2.11.

11:45 a.m.

Deputy Parliamentary Budget Officer, Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer

Mostafa Askari

I assume the government explained exactly what the objective of those—

11:45 a.m.

Conservative

Kelly McCauley Conservative Edmonton West, AB

Let me interrupt you there. This is part of my question to you as the experts. The government hasn't explained what it is. They just put in a line asking for many millions of dollars for pursuing new markets, and asking that it be pre-approved, without ministers coming to explain what it is or whether it is to be spent on bodies or capital or program spending. Then it will go off into the ether, and we will never see it. We've heard that it won't show up detailed in public accounts. It doesn't even show up until after the election.

As experts and financial analysts, how do you view that? Do you think that's enough information for parliamentarians?

11:45 a.m.

Deputy Parliamentary Budget Officer, Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer

Mostafa Askari

Certainly, the more information is provided to parliamentarians, the better it is. That's a given. If you are asking me if—

11:45 a.m.

Conservative

Kelly McCauley Conservative Edmonton West, AB

Is “Ensuring Security in the Digital Age” enough information?

11:45 a.m.

Deputy Parliamentary Budget Officer, Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer

Mostafa Askari

If you're asking me whether the government has to spend the money on that specific topic or not, that's not something I can comment on. That's a policy issue.

11:45 a.m.

Conservative

Kelly McCauley Conservative Edmonton West, AB

Do you think that's enough information for us as parliamentarians to decide whether we should vote on this?

11:45 a.m.

Deputy Parliamentary Budget Officer, Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer

Mostafa Askari

Again, that's something you have to decide. I can't really tell you whether there is enough information there for you or not.

11:45 a.m.

Conservative

Kelly McCauley Conservative Edmonton West, AB

Let me ask you this. This question is for everyone. We have seen as well that $7 billion does not show up in the departmental plans, so we won't know what it's intended for, and we won't know what the intended results are. I assume, therefore, that it's not going to end up in the departmental reports with regard to what it has achieved, because it's not in the plans to begin with.

Considering the opaqueness of what this money is intended for, do you view this as a lack of accountability and lack of transparency with regard to the spending?

11:45 a.m.

Deputy Parliamentary Budget Officer, Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer

Mostafa Askari

Certainly. That's why we have raised the issue that we don't see these measures in the departmental plans. I have every confidence that after these are approved, in next year's departmental reports the departments will talk about and show the results of the funding they received. That's the purpose of those reports.

When it's approved and it's allocated to these departments, obviously they will have to report on those.

11:45 a.m.

Conservative

Kelly McCauley Conservative Edmonton West, AB

I want to pop over to the budget. We've chatted about this before. I want to read a line to you. Compared to the economic statement of 2017, “direct program expenses are lower”. Crown corporations' losses are better, as well as updated departmental outlooks. “Partially offsetting this, expenses related to pensions and employee future benefits are higher”, etc.

I know you have asked Finance specifically for a breakdown of this that shows why program spending over the next five years is basically staying flat, in real terms, despite all this other added spending and program announcements. Have you received information about that spending or about what their plan is that you can share with us as parliamentarians?

11:45 a.m.

Deputy Parliamentary Budget Officer, Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer

Mostafa Askari

We received some detailed information from the finance department, but they stamped that “confidential”, so we cannot share it with you.

11:45 a.m.

Conservative

Kelly McCauley Conservative Edmonton West, AB

This is a line right from the budget. Do you know why public spending information would be confidential and why it cannot be shared with parliamentarians?

11:50 a.m.

Deputy Parliamentary Budget Officer, Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer

Mostafa Askari

I don't really know that. We raised the same issue with the Department of Finance. They could not really provide an answer to us as to why the information is confidential.

Our obligation is that if we receive confidential information, we have to keep it confidential, so unfortunately we cannot share that with you.

11:50 a.m.

Conservative

Kelly McCauley Conservative Edmonton West, AB

I understand that. I'm just flabbergasted as to why public information such as that on program spending that's noted in the document cannot be shared with parliamentarians or Canadians at large. It strikes me as the exact opposite of open by default—maybe opaque by default.

Very quickly, I have one last question—

11:50 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Tom Lukiwski

Unfortunately, Mr. McCauley, your question will have to go unasked.

We're going to Madam Ratansi for five minutes, please.

May 8th, 2018 / 11:50 a.m.

Liberal

Yasmin Ratansi Liberal Don Valley East, ON

Thank you, all, for coming.

I need a bit of clarification.

My colleague asked if Australia is the gold standard, and you said yes, because it has integrated the estimates and the budget process. You referred to the 2012 recommendations by OGGO. Out of the 16 recommendations, we're still talking about the same things: accrual accounting, integration, etc., so we haven't really moved forward. The Treasury Board president has taken a bold step in pushing the agenda, and for that he should be thanked. He's at least trying it. We cannot be the naysayers saying that it doesn't happen, that it shouldn't happen, or that we're still falling short. Yes, we are falling short, but it is a step in the right direction.

The Treasury Board president has instituted many measures to align it. He gave us the interim estimates on March 1, and then the main estimates on April 16. I'm an accountant by profession, so when I look at a main estimate and it doesn't make sense to me when I'm voting on it, it is frustrating. I can appreciate the consideration that you guys have, because in 2009 some of the line items that were meant for G20 went into building gazebos for the then Treasury Board president's riding. I can understand it. We are all very skeptical.

My question is about the A2.11 attachment, which lays out a detailed, line-by-line allocation that the Auditor General says is legally binding for the government. Why is there a conflict between your interpretation of what this does and that of the Auditor General, when the Auditor General actually sits down with Finance, determines how money is going to be allocated, and then does the audit? I am a little confused. Can you help me out?

11:50 a.m.

Parliamentary Budget Officer, Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer

Jean-Denis Fréchette

The Auditor General said the process was okay, so basically the Treasury Board followed the proper process. I'm not sure the Auditor General looked at parliamentary procedure. Everything you mentioned is correct. Back in November 2016, we supported the announcement that they would align it. In our report last week, we said that this was a good approach. We recognize the effort on the part of the government to improve the alignment.

What I said was that it seems that at one point, when the supply bill and the vote hit Parliament, there was something that did not follow. The alignment of the budget and the main estimates did not follow the alignment with the proper procedure of the House of Commons and Parliament. That's what I said.

11:50 a.m.

Liberal

Yasmin Ratansi Liberal Don Valley East, ON

What is that, specifically?

11:50 a.m.

Parliamentary Budget Officer, Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer

Jean-Denis Fréchette

That is the annex you mentioned. It's in the annex; it's not in the supply bill. In the supply bill, under vote 40, the only thing you have is $7 billion. A2.11 is in the annex, not only of the budget in February, but of the main estimates. There's no reference to vote 40 in that. The minister said it is related to that, because it is A2.11.

As I said, if you say it, you can believe it, but if you see it, it's better. That's my point here.

11:50 a.m.

Liberal

Yasmin Ratansi Liberal Don Valley East, ON

If he attaches A2.11 to the main estimates, then would it be more transparent?

11:50 a.m.

Parliamentary Budget Officer, Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer

Jean-Denis Fréchette

If it's included, yes, it would be. It's an improvement. It's going to be clearer. As Mostafa said, and as I said before, you will vote on $7 billion. You still won't be able to do anything other than reduce it or vote in favour of the $7 billion, but at least, per your vote and the vote of all the parties, you will have this table included in the supply bill, and you will know you're voting on $7 billion and the table says it goes there. Whether or not it will go exactly there is another matter, but at least the government is bound to do that.