There you go. We have a Rolling Stone on the committee. That's exciting news.
Once the budget comes out, then, and only then apparently...and I would say this is a reflection of the way that this particular government works. I don't mean this Liberal government. I mean the federal government here in Ottawa. There are governments where there is more collaboration between the Ministry of Finance and the Treasury Board approval process. Therefore, those departments also get a bit of a heads-up on what new budget initiatives will be approved. In those jurisdictions, you can actually secure the Treasury Board approval before the presentation of the budget.
It's kind of backwards, frankly, that here in Ottawa—and this is partly what the Parliamentary Budget Officer was referring to in his report—departments don't have any heads-up on which new budget initiatives that they've proposed are going to be approved until Canadians find out when the budget is read in the House. You can't tell me there's something so special about civil servants who work in the Department of Finance that they can take an oath of secrecy and government can trust them to keep that under wraps, but officials in other departments can't take the same oaths and be trusted not to share that information.
If we were another jurisdiction, if things weren't as they lamentably are, then those departments could get a heads-up about which budget items were approved. Treasury Board could get a heads-up. I mean we've heard from the President of the Treasury Board and his officials that they have very little heads-up. They say that it's better than it used to be, but they haven't really said it's good—not believably anyway. Again, the Parliamentary Budget Officer has made it clear that in his opinion it's not very good.
I think this strange vote as a means to try to secure the President of the Treasury Board's agenda, which I think is a laudable one in terms of its goals of better aligning the budget and the estimates, is proof positive that the requisite level of co-operation doesn't exist.
That was the idea. It was essentially to help out the President of the Treasury Board, who was making no progress with his colleague, the Minister of Finance, on getting better co-operation between the Department of Finance and the Treasury Board Secretariat. The idea was to have Parliament take the hit and have less time to study the estimates so that they didn't have to co-operate in advance of the budget, but they could do it the old way: present the budget, have departments find out, and then have a six-week period to get the initiatives through Treasury Board and into the main estimates.
Lo and behold, what we found out only days before the main estimates were tabled was that the government didn't do that. I have to say that I was kind of shocked at the gall of Treasury Board officials at committee, who said, “Well, yes, that was the idea, but you have to understand that Treasury Board only met twice between when the budget was presented and when the main estimates were presented because of the sitting schedule of the House.”
That wasn't a mystery to them. That was negotiated a long time ago. You're telling me that Treasury Board can't call exceptional meetings, particularly if it's for the sake of helping the President of the Treasury Board achieve a good goal as part of his pet project to secure better alignment between the estimates and the budget document? Members of Parliament and cabinet ministers are not prohibited from being in Ottawa when the House doesn't sit. There was absolutely no reason why they couldn't have had more Treasury Board meetings, regular meetings of the Treasury Board, if it was an important government priority.
This is where I have some sympathy for the President of the Treasury Board. I think it's becoming abundantly clear that his priority of aligning the estimates and the budget, which is a good priority, is not a priority of government. I think, woefully for him, and perhaps for all of us, he has failed to convince his government colleagues of the virtue of having better alignment between those processes. The Minister of Finance, as an outsider I have to speculate, has dug in and isn't willing to co-operate with the President of the Treasury Board, and I guess has more status within the government than the President of the Treasury Board.
I mean, this is exactly where you would expect the Prime Minister to step in and say, “I understand that there are issues within the Department of Finance. I understand that historically you guys have had access to this privileged information. However, for the good of Parliament, for openness and accountability, for the sake of Canadians, I am telling you, as a new Prime Minister, you need to share that information. You need to do it appropriately. You need to do it in a way that safeguards that information from being inappropriately shared, but you need to do it, and you need to play nice in the sandbox. You need to make it so that by the time the main estimates are approved, a significant portion of the new budget initiatives have been through Treasury Board and they're in the main estimates.”
Clearly, the President of the Treasury Board does not have the ear of the Prime Minister. If he did, it's perfectly within the purview of the Prime Minister to do that and to make that case, and unless the Prime Minister isn't taken seriously around the cabinet table, I think that would happen.
Instead, Parliament has been asked to make up for this lack of co-operation within government and for a lack of political will, which I don't attribute to the President of the Treasury Board but, clearly, to the rest of the government. I don't mean Liberal party members in Parliament, but the government, properly speaking—cabinet.
The Standing Orders were changed in order to have a later tabling of the estimates. Of course the obvious consequence of that is a shorter amount of time to study the estimates, which is why it's important that we have a thorough study. I'm so pleased to be able to speak to this important issue because the opportunities have been few and far between.
The trade-off for that shorter time, of course, was that those initiatives—not all of the new budget issues but many of them—would go through the Treasury Board approval process. In order to say nominally that he had managed to achieve perfect alignment between the budget and the main estimates, he would concoct—I'll change my word, Mr. Chair, because I don't want to sound overly pejorative—he would create a new mechanism for approving funding.
That's what we learned through the media, not because of a letter from the President of the Treasury Board, not because of a phone call or calling a meeting to have some discussion about how the President of the Treasury Board could move his project forward—maybe even with the assistance of opposition members if he couldn't get it from his colleagues in cabinet. He would take everything that was in the budget and consolidate it all under one vote in his own department because that's a little bit easier to do. You don't need the co-operation of the finance minister to do that. He's the President of the Treasury Board. It's the President of the Treasury Board who assembles the estimates and decides what form they're presented in.
This was something the President of the Treasury Board could do without buy-in from the rest of cabinet. I'm speculating, Mr. Chair, but I put it to you that this is the real reason we have vote 40. It's because the President of the Treasury Board wanted to move ahead with this project even though he couldn't get buy-in from his colleagues. The way to do that was to have a means by which, once the budget was announced, you could quickly take all of the items in the budget and dump them into the main estimates. Vote 40 is obviously a mechanism that allows you to do that because you don't really need to know what was in the budget in order to do what was done. You just need the table, a table that the Treasury Board knew already existed. They knew that they would get it a week or two before the budget was presented, and then all they would have to do is pop it into the main estimates under a new central vote.
I don't think this central vote is like other central votes for a number of reasons, and I hope to have occasion to present those arguments in the House. I won't provide any spoilers here at committee, but I think it's pretty clear that the real function of vote 40 is for the President of the Treasury Board to be able to move his project ahead without getting the buy-in of his fellow members and without needing a lot of foreknowledge of what was in the budget, because I think Treasury Board, kind of ridiculously, doesn't really have it.
Vote 40 serves that purpose, but it has done that at a terrible cost, because the way that vote 40 operates now is to ask Parliament to pre-approve all of that funding, before the departments for which it's being appropriated even know what they're going to do with the money. They've come up with some general budget numbers, but I think it has been clear, even at committee here. When pressed, they've been pretty clear.
The PCO was another example here at committee in which they were pressed on what they were going to do with the $750,000 for this year on an initiative to create a new.... It's not exactly clear what they're going to do. They may create a new commission for federal election debates, but they'll certainly create a new process. I think that's the rubric under which they're asking for that money. They said very clearly, “We don't know how we came up with that number. We're not really responsible for that. It's not really in our estimates. The program hasn't been developed. We couldn't tell you how many staff we're going to hire. We don't know if we're going to go across the country and do consultations in town halls and in community centres, or if we're going to do a social media consultation, or if we're going to rent a jet to do these consultations. Are we going to take a bus?”
All these things that go into coming up with that number we don't actually know.
We're in this really awkward position of having to evaluate funding without knowing, and not just evaluate it, but then approve it, and say..... That may be fine for government members who have great trust, but I would say even if you support the party that's in power, if you're familiar with how government works, there's a lot of stuff that can go wrong, and I don't think it's inappropriate at all. In fact, the opposite is true. Parliamentarians should be asking these kinds of questions when they're being asked to approve funding. I think that's one of the basic points of Parliament, even if you go all the way back to the Magna Carta, which sounds cheeky but it's not. The fundamental principle of that is that there would be no taxation without representation and that the king couldn't just decide to appropriate funds for any purpose at all. The idea of a Parliament was that there would be oversight by those who were being asked to give the money of the purposes the money would be used for.
One of the reasons we have opposition days and one of the reasons we present petitions in the House is that one of the principles was that parliamentarians, the crown, should have to hear people's grievances, that the crown should have to hear what people were upset about and what they wanted the king or queen to do differently before they approved the funds.
The principle of having debate and discussion and asking questions and pressing the crown before approving the money is a very long-standing principle of the parliamentary system that we have here in Canada, and it's one of the most important jobs that we do, regardless of what party you're from. It's literally what Parliament is all about. It's all about holding the crown to account for the money that it's raising from citizens and the purposes to which it puts that money.
What we're being asked to do with vote 40, if we don't pass this motion, which I think is not even.... We're still doing our best in a damaged process, but this motion is about at least having the opportunity to ask the ministers of the crown what they're planning to do in their new budget initiatives. Some of the answers so far have not been very compelling. Their answer is that they don't know, but I think it's incumbent upon us to at least ask other ministers in other departments. Maybe other ministers do have some plans for what they're going to do with the money. I think that would be good. I would be very reassured, frankly, to hear that other ministers at least have some plans about what they're going to do with the money, and they're not just asking for an upfront approval, because I think that really contravenes the principles of Parliament.
The President of the Treasury Board said as much early in this Parliament. Members may recall that one of the first things the government did was to come to the House with some supplementary estimates, and the reason they did that was that the previous government in the lead-up to the election—and I'm not imputing any motive here; it's just a fact—spent a lot of money out of the contingency fund. Maybe that was for good reasons, or maybe for bad. I don't know, but they did. So that $750-million contingency, which is the money that Parliament approves without any specific purpose in mind.... You know, a $750-million contingency fund is one thing; a $7-billion omnibus vote for every new budget initiative is another.
In any event, that money was spent. The President of the Treasury Board came back to Parliament, rightfully I think—and there are legitimate concerns about the contingency vote and how it's used and whether it's appropriate or not—for the supplementary estimates to replenish the contingency fund. The reason he gave for doing that was that he wanted to be open and he wanted to be transparent, and he didn't think it made sense to be either spending more money out of the contingency fund, because there was some left, or to be using special warrants to secure funding, which we don't have to get into—and I hear a sigh of relief, perhaps—but which is another way of the government securing funding on an emergent basis. I do hear one member.... I'll refer him to the appropriate chapter of the House of Commons Procedure and Practice and I'm sure he'll rush to it.
They didn't use those tools because the President of the Treasury Board said at the time that he wanted to be open and transparent, and he wanted to make sure that Parliament gave proper oversight. As I've said many times already today, I don't dispute the motives of the President of the Treasury Board. I think he's on to a good thing in his intent, but I think he's come up with something now that unfortunately seriously undermines some of the basic principles of Parliament because he couldn't get buy-in from the government. For as much as I have sympathy for him and for his project, it is not acceptable to ask Parliament to surrender its fundamental role of scrutinizing public spending because the President of the Treasury Board couldn't get buy-in from his colleagues. That's wrong.
That's the situation we're in. Given the situation we're in, that means we have to be able to ask those questions in the appropriate way. The only way we can do that is by having the appropriate ministers come before this committee to speak to the items they have in vote 40.
It's not the only committee I've been on where this is the case, where government members are fond of adjourning debates. I would put to you, Mr. Chair, that this is not a debate to adjourn by any means because it's an important one. If we don't get to the point where we can call these ministers.... We are the only committee that's charged with the responsibility of reporting back on the main estimates as a whole, and the committee that's charged with reporting back on the votes under the Treasury Board department, so in this case we have a double obligation, both with respect to the general estimates and with respect to our role to study the Treasury Board vote. If we don't do that, if we don't have a proper study...and we heard again from the Speaker on Friday and Monday that the estimates are before committee and that committee is the place for debate. Then let's have it, Mr. Chair.
I would urge that after we pass this motion, we rush as quickly as we can to resume debate on the previous motion that was just adjourned because that would give us the time to have this full study and to have appropriate debate. Based on some of what I quoted earlier, members will now know, both from previous Speaker's rulings and from House of Commons Procedure and Practice that there is no way we're going to have this debate in the House. It doesn't work like that.
I respect that not every member is an expert on the business of supply. I didn't know a heck of a lot about it until recently, but as you may be able to tell, I spent some time in the last little while doing some extensive reading. It is quite fascinating. You learn a lot about Parliament, its functions, our role. It's alarming to learn that in the context of main estimates that contain a vote like vote 40, because what you see is that, I think not necessarily even maliciously, we are on the cusp of cementing a new mechanism that fundamentally undermines the role of Parliament.
I know that sometimes bad things can happen, even with people who have the best of intentions, either because they're nervous about admitting they don't quite understand what's at stake or exactly how it works, or because they don't want to offend their friends. When you represent 60,000, 70,000, 80,000 people, you have an obligation to try to rise above those feelings and make decisions in the best interests of the people you represent and in the best interests of the country. I humbly submit to you, Mr. Chair, and to the members of this committee, that approving vote 40 is not the way to do that and that we will be making a serious mistake, and we may allow the government to set a precedent that's abused in the future.
There was a similar central vote, vote 35, in the Parliament of 2008-09. I think it was the 40th Parliament, if memory serves. The thing that was different about that vote.... If members were to refer to the wording of that vote they would know that vote set a limit on when the money could be spent. It wasn't a general approval for the entire year. The money had to be spent between a certain day in April 2009 and a certain day in June 2009.
The reason for that was that the vote was developed in response to an urgent economic need. That need was acknowledged not only by the government. In fact, arguably, the government of the day was the most reluctant to admit that there was a need for economic stimulus. The opposition parties were calling on the government to get money out the door quickly and to make a quick, focused investment in the Canadian economy—particularly with respect to infrastructure—to make sure that the fallout from the 2008 economic crisis didn't hit Canada the way it was hitting other countries across the world.
There were very strict conditions on that. That timeline was very important. That timeline meant that only projects that were already approved and ready to go, projects that had been through Treasury Board.... This wasn't for projects that hadn't been to Treasury Board yet. This was for projects that had been approved, were shovel-ready, and good to go. That's very different.
To ask parliamentarians to approve a fund on those initiatives is very different from asking parliamentarians to approve a speculative fund for projects that are not ready to go—a fund that lasts the entire year so departments can kind of get around to it when they feel like it. This was, “Anything you have that's ready to go, let's go.” Let's get it out the door in this very specific, time-limited period, to accomplish a specific function, which is to stimulate the economy. If you don't use it by the end of June, you'll lose it. That's very different from what vote 40 is asking.
I submit to you, Mr. Chair, that if you consult the record you'll find a debate on vote 35, which I recently had occasion to read. The government was very specific about vote 35 being time-limited and responding to an urgent need. If you read the comments of opposition members, you'll find that they, too, were very specific about vote 35 being time-limited and responding to an urgent need.
The idea that somehow vote 35 would act as a precedent for vote 40, I think, is completely wrong and misguided. It fails to recognize that vote 35 had a very specific purpose. It wasn't something that the government was doing over and against Parliament. They weren't using their majority to ram it through. It was a minority Parliament, in fact. By definition, they had to have the support of at least some opposition members, or the vote would have failed and it would have precipitated an election, because it's an item of supply.
These are very different circumstances. You're talking about a vote with very clear criteria on what it's needed for. You're talking about at least a bipartisan, if not multipartisan, consensus in the House, and the support of opposition parties. That's a big difference. You're not talking about one committee having to survey all of the new budget initiatives, because that's not what the vote was for. The vote was for projects that were already approved and ready to go. That's a big difference, I think.
If you were sitting on this committee in 2009—some members may have been, I don't know—you would not have been in the position of having to call every minister in order to scrutinize that vote, because you would have known that vote is actually only for projects that have already been approved here in Ottawa, and through the federal government's Treasury Board process, and also provincially. I'm sure there were a number of provincial projects that benefited from some of that funding. It would have been through a second layer of approval at that point.
I believe that the Treasury Board approval process adds value to what we do. It's important to government as well, because it's a rigorous costing.
The report of the Auditor General came out today on Phoenix. I don't want to prejudge anything that we're going to say or do in meetings to come, but one of the lines that stood out in that report was that at no point was there any written authorization for proceeding with Phoenix. Nobody wrote it down. Nobody said, “I'm the one. I'm saying it's good to go.” That raises a lot of issues.
What the Treasury Board approval process is for.... I'm not saying it works in every case. Clearly, it didn't work in the case of Phoenix. I presume there was a Treasury Board approval for that at some point. What I'm trying to get at is that if people are going to do their jobs and be accountable for the programs they implement, then at some point you have to have a moment in the process where they can ask those rigorous questions. Not just ask the high-level principle questions, but get into the details.
Treasury Board is the place where ministers can do that. That's where cabinet does its due diligence on that.
We also benefit from that work being done. They need to do that before they come to us because we need to be able to ask those questions of them, too. Vote 40 circumvents that process. It means that they haven't done their due diligence yet. It means that we don't have the opportunity to evaluate, first of all, whether they've even done their due diligence, and second, whether they've done it properly.
I think vote 40 represents a failure at more than one level in terms of everybody doing their job of providing adequate scrutiny for the estimates. What we know is that if it hasn't been through Treasury Board, cabinet hasn't done its due diligence yet. We hear from the President of the Treasury Board that they will. That's great, but I would be a lot more comfortable if they came to me after they had done it. That's normal.
I think it's really important, at this point, to say that, with regard to what I'm talking about here, I'm not asking for some special treatment. I'm not asking for Parliament to do what it's never done before. I'm not asking for government to jump through hoops that it doesn't jump through. All I'm asking is for it to do what it has always done, which is to go through that normal approval process at Treasury Board and then come to us so that everybody in the chain of accountability has the opportunity to ask the real questions.
I'm not saying that members always avail themselves of the opportunity to bring real questions, but they're accountable for that. If they ask ridiculous questions, or if they spend their time spouting off when they have a minister at committee, that's their lost opportunity. It's on the record for everybody to see. People can go back and see if their MP did a good job; if, when the minister was at committee, their MP asked the real questions. Whether MPs actually ask the right questions or not doesn't matter. It's their opportunity to do that good accountability work. If they don't do it, then people can judge them on the basis of whether they did it or not.
That's why I think it's no small thing. I don't think it can just be passed off as, “Oh well, we haven't gone through Treasury Board; we haven't done the proper approvals yet.” That's just not okay.
I have an interesting quote here, which I suppose I'll share, although I caution the committee that I haven't read it yet.