moved that Bill C-214, an act to provide for improved information on the cost of proposed government programs, be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Mr. Speaker, it gives me great pleasure to start debate on Bill C-214.
The people want to turn the light on the departments of government that are spending their money. They want to be part of the process of government spending and not merely the recipients of the bills through income taxes after the money is spent. They
want to return to the origins of taxation when individuals gave their specific consent to be taxed.
Many look in mystery as they study their weekly pay cheques. They are mystified that so much is gobbled up by taxation and they are at a loss to understand how they were part of a process that allowed this to happen.
Over 55 per cent of our total personal income is accounted for by all forms of taxation, from income taxes, sales taxes, payroll taxes and municipal taxes. Government expenditure is a great confusion to the public. It is an attempt to clarify and shed light on this darkness which my bill before us tonight addresses. The whole concept of taxation was originally based on consent, the consent to be taxed for things which we considered common good, for example sidewalks, snow removal and armies.
I have practised as a tax advisor to many Canadians and not just the wealthy but also those to whom I have donated my time. The common theme was did we consent to this level of taxation. Why is it important and why have we succumbed to this state of affairs when Canada's tax rates are the second highest in the western world? Graduates of Waterloo university are encouraged to leave the country because of a promise of lower tax regimes south of the border.
Did people rationally weigh the cost of programs which have pushed us to this dilemma? Indeed there are those who think by simply balancing the annual deficit it is good enough, as if we should continue to carry a mortgage of this magnitude forever.
What has caused us to create a deficit of over $600 billion? How can we prevent this situation from repeating itself? This is the real purpose of Bill C-214. People have lived in the dark over the cost of government programs. This does not mean we should turn every citizen into a bookkeeper or an accountant. We have to do away with a thought process that someone else is paying the bills.
I often encountered this philosophy in my professional life. People thought it was their next door neighbour who was paying for programs and not them. The reality of course is that nothing is for free and in one way or another we are all contributors. People want to get out of the darkness and turn on the light.
This is the purpose of this legislation. We have bureaucrats who spend endless hours studying government programs. Indeed recently in the October report from the Treasury Board the minister stated: "We must equip ourselves with better systems for evaluating the actions of government so that we can genuinely answer for our actions, first and foremost to our fellow citizens who are both clients and taxpayers".
Our government has come a long way in bringing fiscal responsibility back to government, from an annualized deficit of $44 billion down to $17 billion. We are on the road to financial responsibility.
The problem that gave rise to the original issue has not been solved. Simply put, everyday people did not understand the process or consent to the process that removed over 55 per cent of their disposable income. I suggest that because of this lack of consent we have watched a burgeoning underground economy and people taking their investments offshore.
Thomas Jefferson stated the people are collectively wise. That is why I believe this legislation will turn the lights on for those who pay the bills. It will allow them to be included.
This bill will not give everybody an economic overview of government but it will encapsulate the costs of specific legislation. It will make the information readily available to the public and to parliamentarians. Think of it, a bill that would shed light on the back rooms of Ottawa where people spend our money.
Members of Parliament jump up and down here all week long. They vote on legislation when many have not the slightest idea of its fiscal impact on individuals and the economy in general. This is because this information is not readily available. This legislation would empower them. It would give them more information and make them more effective in representing their constituents. Accountability is what it is all about. The public is clamouring for it and who are we to deny its rights?
The critics of this bill state two basic objections, that the process itself will increase the cost of government and it will inhibit the legislative agenda of the government. First, the government has prided itself on its program evaluation system which analyses the cost benefits of government programs. This is part of a program known as program review. The tool for doing this is a process called expenditure management systems. This is all very well and good as far as it goes.
The problem is all of this examines costs and benefits which have already occurred. Clearly knowing that programs have been efficient or otherwise is useful but the taxpayer will already be stuck with the bill. We are spending millions of dollars to conduct this after the fact review. It would make more sense to bring this examination process forward to the initial stage of legislation.
There is no question that with a greater degree of financial control and scrutiny the government will save more money than any incremental cost of having bureaucrats cost legislation prior to its introduction as opposed to after it is in full swing. Simple common sense tells us that better cost efficient decisions are made
when people assess them prior to their commencement than after the costs have been incurred.
A press release that was issued this morning by the Canadian Federation of Taxpayers states: "Taxpayers could save billions of dollars if the House of Commons votes to pass Bill C-214, the program cost declaration act, introduced by the member for Durham, to be voted on today"-which is not quite true-"at second reading. It would require government departments to provide a cost analysis for each new bill". The federation has stated that billions of dollars could be saved for the taxpayers of Canada.
Second is the concern that this will inhibit the legislative process. It seems to me this argument goes back to regimes of the past. Nobody would go down to a car lot, look over the car, agree to purchase it, drive it away and say "send me the bill" without knowing the cost, and neither should government. This is the whole point of this legislation.
Past governments have promised us all kinds of programs without fully informing us of their costs. A quick look at the state of affairs of the Canada pension plan would leave anyone to conclude that not taking the time or effort to anticipate cost has now led us to a place where we have to make some pretty drastic decisions which will not only affect the younger generations but also some who thought their immediate retirement incomes were secure. What degree of participation did people have in all of this anyway?
It is hard to understand how someone could argue the point of hindrance to the legislative process. It should be part of the legislative process and people should have a right to know.
These are not the issues of the rich but rather the poor and the disenfranchised. As we go through a period of retrenchment of fiscal priorities, many of the poor will be negatively affected. It is to the loss of some of these social programs that this bill directs itself, to the fact that after years of economic expansion that government has extended itself well beyond what it is able to sustain.
Indeed, the auditor general has gone on at length about whether our current levels of deficit are sustainable. That is to say at what point can governments no longer shoulder the cost of servicing the debt? If we have a mortgage on every single Canadian, as our government does, surely these same people have a right to see what the costs are. More important, they want some assurance that we are not going to return to the errors of the past.
This bill does simply two things. First, it requires that the fiscal impact of new legislation be included in a bill at the same time it is presented in this House. This also extends to the regulations of departments.
Second, it requires that the auditor general certify that the method of cost evaluation was fair and reasonable. I would like to underline this matter. The auditor general is only certifying that the method is correct. He or she has no political interference in the worthiness of programs but simply whether the method used to arrive at the estimated costs was reasonable under the circumstances. I suggest that the parallel in the private sector would be the certification of prospectuses.
Like the expenditures in the management system that we now have in place, the role of the auditor general is what is known as ex post. By this I mean he examines costs after they occur. Some of our listeners would equate this to closing the barn door after the horse is out.
This is the whole point of moving this process forward in time. It is small comfort for taxpayers and citizens generally to discover wasteful spending three years after the fact. It only makes them less trustful of their elected officials and government generally. They certainly feel they had no part in the decision making.
By costing legislation prior to its initiation, taxpayers and citizens generally will have available to them the tools by which to judge. It will be up to members of Parliament to justify whether the cost is justified relative to the benefits to be derived. This clearly is what democracy is all about. It makes people part of the decision making of government financing.
I have always had much respect for the people who work for the Treasury Board and also those in finance. I have often thought they were much like a lopsided hockey team where they were the goaltenders and every other department was the offence, all trying to score, and score means budget allocations.
This is why I find it hard to understand why some of them are reticent to accept this degree of accountability. It seems to me that with the support of the general public they will be in a better position to stop the pucks of the spenders of the future. This is the problem. Many legislators equate a zero annual deficit with the end of the story. This legislation would make legislators more cognizant of the cost effects on the general public. Turn the lights on. This is what taxpayers and citizens demand.
Here is what some people are saying about the bill. I have some quotations here. The Auditor General of Canada said: "We share your view that the cost of government programs and operations should be made more visible to Parliament and taxpayers". "I am pleased to inform you that the Certified General Accountant's Association of Ontario fully supports your private member's bill. Your initiative accords with the CGA's Ontario Board of Governors requirements that all action items presented to the board must be accompanied by an explanation of financial implications".
Another quote: "Mr. Shepherd's bill is a good first kick at the can and deserves the consideration of all members of Parliament". That was said by James Forrest of the Alberta Taxpayers' Association.
"I commend you for presenting the right type of legislation which will help the public to understand where their hard earned tax dollars are being spent". That is a quote from the president of the Chartered Association of Certified Accountants. I could go on with the list but obviously time will not permit.
We talk a lot about our youth and it is truly the younger generation that will inherit our nation and propel it into the next millennium. Saddling our youth with debts, which they did not incur, will tie their hands. Governments are struggling with this reality as we move toward a more responsible fiscal framework.
It is also appropriate that we conduct a post mortem. That does not mean that we are dead, but it certainly means that financially we are very much on the ground. When we conduct this port mortem we must ask ourselves how this situation occurred in the first place and ensure that we cure the disease so that it will not happen again. That is what my bill attempts to do.
We need to give people the tools to make conscious choices about government policy. Our younger generation will accept nothing else. It is to these people that we address the need for a more consensual form of government.
This is the day after the U.S. election. I was in the United States on the weekend and I actually took part in some of the electioneering. I stopped people on the street and I knocked on doors. The mood was: "They are nothing but a bunch of crooks. It really does not matter anyway". Corrupt election financing practices, together with the fact that people cannot see how they would count, has brought their voter turnout to less than 50 per cent. Imagine, more than half the population of the so-called strongest nation in the world do not consent to their government.
It is this issue which this legislation addresses here in Canada. Turn on the lights and let the people decide. Include them in the decision making process. To do otherwise is to court divisiveness and exclusivity which may well lead to violence.
I have studied many regimes in Australia, Great Britain and the Netherlands that are all moving in the direction of providing more accountability for the actions of government to the people. Think about it. Every piece of legislation that comes before the House would have a cost attached to it. Some in the bureaucracy are going to say it is very difficult to do. But the reality is that we already have an evaluation and internal system of calculating the cost of programs. It simply means moving the thought process up a little bit closer to the legislative process.
How can we as legislators go around the country talking about various pieces of legislation without understanding the full impact it will have on the economy and on government spending? As I researched this issue in other countries, I found that other parliamentarians were doing much of what I am suggesting: moving in the general area of greater accountability, greater awareness of the programs for the general public.
There is nothing unusual about any of the things I am suggesting. It is done in business every day. I am not saying that government is a business. It is not. We have a very different social purpose here. But government needs to be run a little bit more like a business. People have to know the costs.
My fear is that even though we are going down the road of financial and fiscal responsibility and we have moved the ship of state, if you will, maybe 10 degrees on the course where we want to go, there are people who will move it back the other way and we will be off course again. People want to be part of the process. They want to be involved in the process that allows them to make judgments on how governments spend.
People are not going to sit down with a calculator and figure out how much every piece of legislation impacts them, which is why I have included a clause that says: "divided by the population statistics". That way, everyone will know exactly how much every piece of legislation costs him or her.
This could be a good thing. This is not a negative thing for government programs. It could well be a good thing. For instance, we may find that the cost of day care, if we extrapolate it over our population base, is really quite small. People would have a greater degree of acceptance of that if they saw that it was a small cost on an individual basis. On the other hand, there would be those programs that people would not think were particularly cost effective. They would be able to make those kind of judgment calls.
There will be those people who could not care less. They will not use the information at all but the bottom line is that they will have the ability to do so.
The longer I sit in this House and the more legislation I see come by, I cannot figure out what the financial impact of it is at all. I feel it is really part of my responsibility, as a legislator, to know that and to explain it to my constituents. I do not feel that I have the ability to do that with the present legislative format.
Finally in summary, just simply turn the lights on here in Ottawa.