Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
The importance of this motion, I think, can't be overstated, in that what the government has chosen to do under Treasury Board vote 40 is unprecedented. In fact, it says—I think it's on page 6 of part I of the main estimates—that this is a new vote. It's a new way of doing things. It stands to reason, Mr. Chair, that in order to properly study these estimates, we may have to do things that aren't normally done.
One of the things we have to do that isn't normally done, as a result of this mechanism, which wasn't chosen by me to be difficult.... It was chosen by the government. I think it may even be that the government chose it in good faith, trying to do something genuinely new. I would say that, as a rule, it makes more sense when you're changing some of the fundamental practices of the House to do that in consultation with the opposition parties. I know this was not done in consultation with the opposition parties. I think that's lamentable.
We might have been able to find a way for the government to achieve its goal of better aligning the budget document with the main estimates documents and the public accounts documents that actually coheres to existing parliamentary practice. That wasn't the road the government chose to go down, however, so opposition politicians are in the position of having to use what occasions they have to provide their feedback on the record. You'll know that I've been attempting to do that in various ways.
One of the things this new Treasury Board central vote requires, in my opinion, is that the committee that's studying that new central vote—because that central vote includes over 200 budget initiatives worth over $7 billion of taxpayers' money across all departments and agencies of government, or nearly all, certainly many of them.... What that requires is that the committee studying that vote.... It's too bad that this may be the case. Members may not like it, but it's the truth. If the committee is going to do its due diligence and actually ask questions of the departments about these new initiatives.....
Those initiatives aren't in their departmental plans. That means that the subject expert committees that have the main votes and the main estimates for those departments can't really ask questions about those votes. It could be at a committee that those questions would be ruled out of order. Even if they aren't, we've seen even at this committee that in many cases departments say.... We had public works say very clearly at this committee, “Those aren't in our estimates. We can't answer those questions.”
Who can answer those questions? We don't know, but we have an obligation to find out and to seek those answers. Until we hear from the various ministers who represent all the departments and agencies that are included in that vote, we can't very well say that we've done our due diligence. I think it follows very clearly from this that we would have to hear from those ministers.
A quite related and important point, Mr. Chair, that I may yet have occasion to make in the House but haven't yet had an opportunity to make is that I think there's a real problem here—and this motion speaks directly to this problem—of undermining the normal committee study process. Normally, it's the subject expert committees that would examine the votes for a particular estimate. In addition to not being in their proper form, I think there are some issues with that with respect to the main estimates because of vote 40. This normal process for studying the estimates at committee is frustrated.
I would point to the House of Commons Procedure and Practice, third edition, which is very clear. On page 1013, it states, “When the estimates are tabled in the House, each standing committee receives an order of reference for those departmental and agency votes which relate to its mandate.” However, by including all of the government's new budget initiatives under one Treasury Board vote, the government has disrupted the normal process by which votes are referred to the appropriate subject expert committee. This is why it's pertinent to be calling all of these ministers, and it's why I'm speaking very directly to the content of the motion right now.
Instead, the 247 new spending initiatives contemplated in the budget and proposed in the estimates by way of vote 40 are referred to one committee, the Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates, which is then expected to study and evaluate the new initiatives for every department, initiatives as disparate as strengthening the Canada Border Services Agency, securing market access for Canada's agriculture and agri-food products, indigenous sport, Canada's co-chairmanship of the G20 framework working group, and hundreds more. Asking a single committee with no subject area expertise to examine all of these items would be an unrealistic expectation in the best of circumstances.
I would remind you that the House and its committees have even less time to study the estimates this year than we had last year or any other year before it. Last year the Standing Orders were changed to allow for the tabling of the main estimates to occur as late as April 16 rather than the usual March 1 deadline. The putative reason for reducing the time for studying the estimates was that it would give more time to government to approve new budget items through Treasury Board and include them in the main estimates.
However, as I argued earlier, we're now in a position where the estimates contain less information about proposed new government spending and that's because these things aren't in the departmental plan, as I mentioned.
Substituting promises of post facto reporting for offering information up front where that information would once have come through the supplementary estimates process concurrently with the request for spending authority, the government this year is asking for the authority up front. It's important that the study of the estimates at committee not be undermined by either a lack of information on projected spending, normally included in the estimates, or the estimates being constructed in such a way as to exclude new initiatives from the scope of study of the appropriate committee, for instance, by placing the new initiative for a given department in a vote for a different minister. It has long been recognized that the supply process allows for very little discussion and debate outside of committee studies. That's why it's important that you have a robust study at committee and be able to call any of the ministers needed in order to examine the appropriate votes. For example, I would refer you to Speaker Jerome, who said, on December 7, 1977:
I think all honourable Members understand that the supply process is confined in its method of debate and exposure to the House in that it is put forward by way of an estimate which is examined by the committees of the House, and, at the end of that process when the estimate is deemed to be reported or in fact reported back to the House, it is dealt with rather quickly by way of a supply bill on the final supply day of the particular semester in which the estimate was originally advanced.
This is a process which has long been adhered to by the House which provides for an examination of the estimates in rather great detail—
That's only if government members don't adjourn the debate.
—but does not provide for extensive debate between the various states of the supply bill.
Earlier in that year, on March 22, Speaker Jerome quoted his predecessor, who described the supply process similarly saying, “opportunity is undoubtedly limited” and “under the old rules there was unlimited time to consider supplementary estimates, including items intended to amend statutes.”
Under the new rules, there may be only a limited time to consider supplementary estimates. In House of Commons Procedure and Practice, we read, similarly, on page 885, that, “Although theoretically a supply bill is debatable and therefore amendable at all stages after first reading, it generally passes without debate or amendment on the last allotted day.” Further it states:
It is at the Committee of the Whole stage that a Member of the opposition usually seeks assurance from the President of the Treasury Board that the supply bill is in its usual form. Bills reported from a Committee of the Whole are immediately considered at report stage and disposed of without debate or amendment. Once the bill has been read the third time, it is forwarded to the Senate.
Very clearly, there isn't a lot of time in the House to be able to debate or examine these things. The committee of the whole isn't going to call all these ministers to ask them questions about vote 40. That's a job that clearly has to be done at this committee. Given the limited time dedicated in the House to dealing with the estimates and the corresponding appropriation act, it's important that the proper study of the estimates at committee not be frustrated by adjourning debate, for instance.
By blocking spending requests for virtually all the new budget initiatives from going to the appropriate committee, as well as by excluding information from part III of the estimates that would otherwise have been included there, or in a subsequent supplementary estimate, the proposed Treasury Board vote 40 does, in fact, frustrate the proper study of the estimates at committee. The only way that can be rectified is by committees taking it unto themselves to ensure that there's a better process despite the efforts of the government to curtail that process.
Further to that, this mechanism for granting spending authority for new budget initiatives also violates the House's right to conduct its business efficiently. This is a well-established right of the House. Consider these excerpts from the House of Commons Procedure and Practice. One is “The duties of the Speaker of the House of Commons require the balancing of the rights and interests of the majority and minority in the House to ensure that public business is transacted efficiently”. That's on page 317.
I refer you also to this quote: “The rules of relevance and repetition are intertwined and mutually reinforcing.” Then there's, “To neglect either rule would seriously impair the ability of the House to manage its time efficiently. This is on page 625.
On page 627, it says it's important “to safeguard the right of the House to arrive at a decision and to make efficient use of its time.”
Indeed, the very rationale for committee work is that:
A deliberative assembly derives a number of advantages from the use of parliamentary committees. It is more efficient to perform in small groups work that would otherwise be difficult to accomplish in an assembly of more than 330 members.
That's on page 954.
Another quote, from page 1074, tells us:
After deciding on the studies to be undertaken, a committee should agree on a work plan for conducting the studies as efficiently as possible.
That was the motion I was trying to put earlier, which was just adjourned, to have a work plan to study these main estimates appropriately before they're deemed referred back to the House.
Normally, the new budget initiatives proposed by the government would either be included in the main departmental estimates or more likely appear as supplementary estimates in the same supply period, and they would appear under their respective departments. In that way they would be referred to the appropriate committee, and the appropriate minister and/or departmental officials could be called to that committee to answer questions with respect to those initiatives.
Instead, we're now in a position in which the main departmental estimates are spread out across multiple committees, to the normal subject expert committee that would usually deal with a particular department's estimates as well as the Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates, because all of the new departmental initiatives have come here instead of the appropriate committee.
It's important to call these ministers here in order to have that study. No doubt these ministers have also been called to their regular committee as part of the study on their main departmental estimates, of which the vote 40 items really should be a part; or they should appear later in the supplementary estimates, so that those ministers could speak to them at the appropriate committee.
It may well be that one or the other committee, either we or they, will be stood up by a particular minister. It may even be that government members don't want to hear from the various ministers concerning vote 40. I don't know, but I know that we're about to find out. It could be that either that committee or this committee is stood up by ministers, not all of whom accept every invitation to appear at committee, the President of the Treasury Board's protestations notwithstanding.
It could be, then, that somebody is going to be stood up, and that means that the proper study isn't going to take place. It means that certain members won't be able to ask questions of ministers on initiatives that by right ought to be included in their departmental estimates but aren't necessarily. By this weird procedural trick, we're going to end up in a position in which we can only ask questions of the President of the Treasury Board about climate change and environmental initiatives.
Incidentally, our moment has passed. I enjoyed my 10 minutes for serious scrutiny of the more than $7 billion that's being requested under that single vote alone, but unfortunately 10 minutes goes by pretty quickly when you have more than 200 items to study.
If one of us is going to be stood up, either the main committee or us, because ministers aren't accustomed to appearing before more than one committee for their main departmental estimates—because normally, their new budget initiatives are actually included in their departmental estimates.... Go figure. It's not exactly as though this is crazy talk or something. This is the way it's been done since Confederation. If members want to listen, we can say it's actually the way it has been done since 1968. Prior to that there was a very different supply process. The House would actually consider estimates in a committee of the whole, and you had opportunities to move amendments to the appropriation bill.
Actually, in this case it's lamentable that we don't have that kind of process, because clearly amendments are warranted for the appropriation bill that is going to come out of these main estimates. The wording of vote 40 has created this terrible situation whereby we're undermining the normal committee study process and we are—I think rightly, in the circumstances—considering calling virtually every minister of the crown to appear before this committee for the purposes of the main estimates, when by right they ought to be appearing before their normal committee.
I'm sure they will be doing so, but if the answers those committees are going to get on vote 40 initiatives are anything like the answers this committee has gotten on vote 40 initiatives from ministers with respect to initiatives in the budget for vote 40, I have to say it's going to be a pretty sad state of affairs.
We need to be able to see all these ministers to get to the bottom of the question of who in government actually has an answer to the question of what anybody's going to do with this money. We've heard very clearly from senior officials in Public Works in response to the member for Esquimalt—Saanich—Sooke, who was here asking questions about approximately $1 billion in initiatives under table A2.11 of the budget—read “vote 40” or the “budget implementation vote”, or whatever term you want to use for that.
They said very clearly that they couldn't answer that because it wasn't in their estimates. If they can't answer it, are we supposed to believe that the President of the Treasury Board has better insight into the programs under development in the Department of Public Works than the Minister of Public Works or her deputy minister?
It's kind of far-fetched, and even if each minister did appear before two committees, it would be hard to argue that having a process that requires that as a matter of course is consistent with the House conducting its business efficiently. One would think that if one was concerned with efficiency, one would have a process, as we have had from 1968 until 2018, where ministers go to one appropriate committee to answer questions about their departmental estimate.
Now we're being asked to have them appear before two committees. As I say, they ought to come to the two committees because it makes sense, given the mechanism that the government has contrived. I've been very frustrated, because I've been trying to have this conversation. There was some disruption in the House on Friday as I tried to have this conversation on a point of order, but that wasn't the first recourse.
Incidentally, I do think, and I hope to have the occasion to argue in the House and that may come soon, that there are ways in which vote 40 simply is not compliant with the procedures and practice of the House of Commons. The Speaker would be well within his right to strike that vote from the estimates, given some of the arguments I hope to make in the House in the very near future.
That said, in the meantime, committees are stuck dealing with this and we're in the unfortunate situation of having to call ministers to multiple committees. However, when the minister comes here and we're asking questions about all the new budget initiatives, this isn't just a couple of eccentric programs or something that has some cross-governmental property, this is all the things that the government has said are so important for the next year, that collectively add up to over seven billion dollars' worth of money. They printed a document of some 300 pages extolling the virtues of this new programming and talking about how wonderful the new programming is because it meets all the needs of Canadians, or certainly most of them, according to the government anyway.
It isn't just some miscellany, or something such as that. We're not the subject experts for that. We're not the subject experts on indigenous affairs. We're not the subject experts on initiatives within the Department of Health. We're not the subject experts on programs under the Ministry of the Environment.
Even if the ministers did come, we're already at a point where the process is deficient, because at that point the House is no longer asking those members who actually have the requisite expertise to do the investigation. That includes committee analysts and clerks, who also have a subject area expertise after working on a committee for a while and are therefore well positioned to provide better advice to the parliamentarians who sit on those committees when the estimates are before that committee.
We see that in the excellent briefing documents we get from our analyst. That doesn't come from nowhere. That comes from experience with the subject matter, hard work and research, and accumulated knowledge over time. To me, to deny parliamentarians that resource in order to have an omnibus approval of funding for all the new budget initiatives seems to be another way in which this vote undermines the normal study process in a committee.
Just to come back to the main point I was making, I'm sure members have followed the thread through all of that, because it was very clear the entire time and I see nods from some of my colleagues around the table, affirmative nods. It's really not efficient. It's difficult to maintain that having one committee, our committee, without the appropriate subject expertise, study all the new budget initiatives is an efficient method of conducting House business. That's really a main part of what's at issue here.
We've heard from a number of departments, but we certainly haven't heard from all of them. Certainly the motion as worded would provide for some flexibility. I'll just read the motion again so that people can follow along in my remarks.
That the Committee invite each Minister responsible for the departments and agencies listed in the table on pages A1-2 through A1-8 of the Main Estimates 2018-19 titled “Budget 2018: Details of Spending Measures and Proposed Departmental Allocations” to provide a briefing as well as answer questions regarding the associated initiatives, and that the meetings be held no later than Wednesday....
I think you could argue with respect to the President of the Treasury Board, who has come to committee, that we did ask the President of the Treasury Board a number of questions with respect to vote 40. That made sense. Obviously that was within his departmental estimate, but even within vote 40, there were certain initiatives specifically for Treasury Board. I would say that in at least that case, because we've had the opportunity to ask questions of the minister with respect to vote 40 under his own departmental estimates, and also had the opportunity, therefore, to ask him questions about initiatives under vote 40 that fall under Treasury Board, we probably don't need to call him again under this particular motion.
We may want to call him again in our study of the main estimates, notwithstanding the adjournment of debate on the motion, the study of the main estimates between now and June 10, effectively. That's not quite the wording of the motion, but the significance of the date of June 10 is that on June 10 the estimates are deemed referred back to the House whether we report on them or not. Not all government members on the committee may know that, but I'm sure their whip's office does.
I think that's why it's important that we spend some of that time between now and June 10 talking about the estimates. If we do, we may well want to call back the President of the Treasury Board as part of our study on the estimates. We may want to talk to him about the main estimates in general.
On the specific question of whether or not he needs to be called back on this motion to talk about the vote 40 items specifically for the Treasury Board, I think an argument could be made that it's not necessary. That's an argument I look forward to having after this motion passes. It's just a sign of how reasonable I think the opposition is being. Certainly the NDP is, but it could be that other opposition members on the committee are willing to indulge that argument as well, because they do care for the efficiency of our study process, after all.
I do want to say that. If members think that we're going to be calling back every minister who has already appeared at this committee, I would want to reassure them that it's not necessarily the case, because I do think a plausible argument could be mounted to the effect that the President of the Treasury Board does not have to come back specifically under this motion. As I say, having him come back for other reasons pertaining to the main estimates might be a very good idea.
I am concerned. It's in part why I raised the previous motion. I'm concerned that this committee—“Government Operations and Estimates” is in its name—do its due diligence and ensure a proper study of the estimates. I think the committee has to accept that it means doing certain things that are outside the norm because vote 40 is outside the norm. It makes sense when you have new initiatives. Also, it's new in two ways. It's new because the mechanism is new, but it's also new because we're operating under new standing order provisions. Not only are we being called upon to study vote 40, and not only are we being called upon to make assessments that I'm not sure this committee has ever really had to make before in that way, but we're also being asked to do it under a new regime.
I would remind members of the committee of what that new regime is. They're free to pull out their copy of the Standing Orders and consult it, of course. If they do, what they'll find is that normally the deadline for the main estimates to be tabled in the House was March 1. Every year, the estimates had to be tabled in the House by March 1.
Of course, as we've heard from the President of the Treasury Board, that did create some problems, because the budget usually didn't come out until the end of February. What it meant was that the people preparing the main estimates had no idea of what was going to be in the budget while they were preparing the estimates, so once the main estimates were presented, they didn't reflect any of the new budget priorities. There's been a lot of discussion in this Parliament and some negotiation between the parties on how to improve that process.
This is where I'm coming to how we're under a new process. In the course of those negotiations, one of the proposals was that an easy way to allow more time for those initiatives to be included in, I think we all believed, the main departmental estimates, was that we could delay that tabling date. It ended up being delayed about six weeks. Instead of March 1 being the deadline, it's April 16.
The idea was that the budget would be presented, and then the departments would know which of their proposed new budget initiatives...because we all know that departments have many ideas about what they would like to move forward with, and not everything makes it into the budget. Anybody who has worked in a government knows that.
To cut off any snarky comments, Mr. Chair, I would let you know that I have indeed worked in a government. Being from Manitoba where the NDP was in government for 17 years, I was an assistant to the minister of health. Anybody who has worked in a government will know, and even somebody who worked in a health ministry will know, you don't get everything you ask for.