Madam Speaker, I am pleased to get in on the debate today. It has been interesting listening to my colleagues and their discussion. I want to follow along in somewhat the same direction as my colleagues have gone this afternoon because I get very frustrated.
I think my colleague from Dauphin—Swan River said that he has been here seven years. I have been here going on 11 years and it has not changed in that 11 years. I suspect if anyone has been here longer, and many have, that the process has not changed even longer than that. As governments come and go, the process and the discussion seems very familiar. It should not be that complicated a process.
A government comes into the House to start a session. It brings in a Speech from the Throne in which it outlines its priorities on where it would like to see the country go and some of the issues it would like to discuss. It follows that up with a budget to allocate funding to those priorities outlined in the throne speech. Then, after the budget, we have a never-ending budget debate. After all the budget was a month ago or longer and we are still debating it. After that, the government produces the estimates, which is a line by line estimate of the expenditures. Then the estimates are sent off to the various committees where the committees and departments scrutinize the estimates and hold the government accountable. The committees then are required to vote on the estimates from each department. They come back to the House and the House has a chance to vote on them. Rarely do we ever see the House vote down any of the estimates. Occasionally, it happens.
I recall the House did get its back up and vote down an estimate on money going to the gun registry sometime ago, but it did not make much difference. That particular department just took the money from somewhere else and continued on its way. It really did not take direction from the decision of the House that it was not a good expenditure of money. It just found it somewhere else.
Even this would not be bad if that was how the process worked. After the estimates are voted on, that is not the end of it. It does not, in a public way, show where the government is spending tax dollars. If the government is short funds later on in the year, it comes up with the supplementary estimates to cover any money it might have spent which it had not figured on when the estimates were put out in the first place.
The system should be presented in a way that Canadians can understand and see where their money goes, but it is not. The government indignantly tells us that this item of spending or that item of spending was in the estimates and if we were diligent in our job, we would see that and understand it. I am thinking about the unity fund. That is just rubbish. I defy anybody to find these things in the estimates.
This has been a favourite subject of mine for the 10 and a half years I have been here. The government should report spending and present the estimates in a form that we as members of Parliament can really understand. We should be able to see where the government is spending money. Then when it comes to a vote, we can determine whether we want to support that particular spending. However, I will get a little more into that later, particularly as it applies to the department I am most familiar with, the Department of Natural Resources. I am the party critic for that department and that is where I have the responsibility to scrutinize the spending.
Moving back to the process of presenting the budget. The government presents a budget on where it will spend money and on what programs it will spend money. It is not a lot different from what Canadian families or businesses do. They depend on a certain amount of income. They prepare a budget and determine on which programs they will spend that money. At the end of the day, that budget has to balance in most households and businesses.
Unfortunately, it does not seem to work like that in government. If it did, we would not be $500 billion in debt. No business or family could run up that level of debt and still exist, but governments do not have those restraints on them. It seems they have an endless amount of money because they can always go back to the well for more tax dollars.
This government produced a budget. Then the Prime Minister, instead of going out and defending the budget, has been on a never-ending spending spree across the country. We heard some talk about the EI fund. The minister just recently announced a program for funding seasonal workers. I kind of got a chuckle when the minister talked about governments making quick surgical changes to the EI program to help these seasonal workers. Quick surgical changes are not something this government is noted for, or any government for that matter. Therefore, I was surprised. Maybe the government could look at some of the other programs.
However, that was only one of them. The deputy government leader announced $1 million in government funds for official languages in Sudbury, Ontario on April 27. That was not in the budget. From April 1 to 14, a survey of press releases showed Liberal ministers and backbench MPs from the departments of agriculture, fisheries and oceans, human resources, Canadian heritage and industry took credit for $1 billion in funding announcements, none of which were presented in the government's budget.
One of the announcements from Madawaska—Restigouche was to restore a replica of a historic railway. It came along with a cheque for $361,500. That is hardly something we saw in the budget. There was another $432,554 for an Acadian festival and another $400,000 to renovate a theatre in the labour minister's hometown of Moncton, New Brunswick. These may all be worthy projects, but certainly they were not presented either in the budget or in the estimates, at least no where I can see.
The Victoria Symphony Society received $150,000 from the environment minister, who happens to live in the riding. A magazine entitled, “Prairie North, Life in Saskatchewan” received $25,986 in funding from the finance minister who, ironically enough, represents a Saskatchewan riding.
For all I know, all these may be worthwhile initiatives. However, one gets suspicious when they are not in the budget or when they are not visible in the estimates, and it is weeks before the pending election. The money is coming from somewhere but we are not too sure from where, perhaps the discretionary spending.
The expenditures appear to be more like Liberal bait to get votes than planned, thoughtful expenditures of a government that has presented a budget to which Canadians can look forward.
I want to spend a few minutes on the estimates and the process that we have in this place of approving the expenditures of the government that comes out of the budget. It has frustrated me for 11 years. I will concentrate on the estimates that I know.
The Department of Natural Resources, which is a very small department in the big scheme of things because it is under the purview of the provinces and the federal government really does not have a large role to play there, has an expenditure of $1.1 billion. For a government that spends $180 billion, $1.1 billion is not that much. Lo and behold, this department increased its spending this year by $280 million. That is a pretty sizeable increase. Maybe that was all right, but when the estimates were brought to committee for us to have a look at, and I am not an accountant by any means, as most Canadians are not, this estimate process should be in a form that we can understand and see where the government is spending money.
In particular, the discretionary spending is where I have my biggest problem because legislated spending is pretty straightforward. A bill is brought through the House, a program is created and the money is budgeted to cover that program, but there are always pages of grants and contributions under discretionary spending. I ask questions every year on this spending but I rarely ever get answers.
The minister says that if I come to his office and spend time with him he will explain it, but that is not how the process is supposed to work. Spending priorities are supposed to be reported line by line in a transparent form that Canadians can understand. One should not have to make an appointment with the minister in order to understand it.
Under grants and contributions there are no less than eight places where it suggests line items in varying amounts of money, from $1 million down to $30,000. It says:
In support of organizations associated with the research, development, management and promotion of activities that contribute to departmental objectives.
How in the world would anyone know where that money is going? It really frustrates me that it is presented to us in committee and then we are asked to vote on whether the government should spend that money.
That was eight different places with eight different amounts of money with the same wording. It could mean anything. It could mean that the Liberal friendly ad firms in Quebec are organizations that certainly support departmental objectives because it pays for them to support departmental objectives, whether or not it did. The minister denied that it had anything to do with that kind of use of tax dollars. Maybe he is right but one would never know that from looking at these estimates.
Another item in the estimates is the $1.3 million to the Canada-China wood products initiative. That is very clear. What is the Canada-China wood products initiative? One of my colleagues spoke earlier about CIDA money going to China, the largest country in the world in terms of population, with its own nuclear weapons program, its own space program and seems to have a lot of money for those kinds of initiatives. Yet we are sending $1.3 million for the Canada-China wood products initiative, whatever that might be.
We are contributing another $1 million to the national community tree foundation. The list goes on and on.