Mr. Speaker, I move that the sixth report of the Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates, presented on Tuesday, March 23, be concurred in.
I am pleased to kick off this three hour debate on the concurrence motion on the sixth report of the Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates that was presented on Wednesday, March 23.
The committee report was very critical of the government and for good reason. I will just read the report for all members in the House so they will know what the concurrence motion is about. The sixth report reads:
Pursuant to Standing Order 108(2), the Committee agreed to the following motion:
That the Committee present a report to the House expressing its dismay and frustration at the lack of time allowed for the study of the Supplementary Estimates (B). Therefore this Committee recommends that the supplementary estimates be referred to the Committee at least 21 sitting days before the required reporting date.
The report deals directly with a situation the committee unanimously found to be completely unacceptable. The supplementary estimates B was given to the committee in such a fashion that we only had one committee day that we could possibly use to deal with the supplementary estimates B. Of course, that committee date had been booked and witnesses were scheduled long before that. We found unanimously that this was completely unacceptable, which led to the tabling of the report.
I just want to go through this in a little bit of detail so it is clear just how nonsensical it was. The supplementary estimates were tabled in the House on February 25 of this year. At the time they are tabled in the House, they are deemed to have been reported to the committee. This was done on a Friday, which was the Friday before a week when the House was not sitting. Therefore there was no opportunity for the committee to deal with supplementary estimates B during that down week.
The week we returned, our first committee meeting was on March 8. Under the rules of the House and Standing Order 81(5), it is clear that the supplementary estimates B must be reported to the House three sitting days before the last allotted day.
We came back to the House on Monday, March 7, prepared to hear our witnesses at the March 8 committee meeting and realized that was the only meeting available to us to review the millions of dollars of spending that the government had added to its initial estimate. It was a substantial change in budget and the committee was given only one meeting.
Because of a sense of responsibility and even though we had no time to book witnesses to come to the meeting, we did review the estimates and we did report them back to the House on the 10th, which was the latest date for us to do so. We had to report back to the House by 10 o'clock in the morning of March 10, even though we had only one committee meeting available.
When the committee members realized what had happened, we sent a report to the House explaining in very curt terms how extremely upset we were with the process. We called for what I think was a logical solution to this ongoing problem. In our motion we called for the government to table the estimates in the House, because they are then deemed to have been reported to the committee at that time, at least 21 sitting days before the day on which we need to report them back to the House. We felt that 21 sitting days would be an appropriate length of time to deal with the supplementary estimates B in a practical fashion.
Part of the concern of the committee went beyond this specific problem of the supplementary estimates B.
Many times members of all committees have expressed great concern with the accountability of government in this Parliament. Part of it is the main estimates, supplementary (A) estimates and supplementary (B) estimates. Part of it is the performance reports, which, quite frankly, give nothing but fluff. I have yet to see a performance report, which is part of the government accountability process to the House, where the government has admitted that it has done something poorly.
Everybody knows the government has done a lot very poorly. Everyone acknowledges that the public service, from time to time, does things in a way that is not as good as it is certainly expected to do. However when it comes to the performance reports, we never see that in the reports. That is another part of this process that we feel is completely unacceptable.
Then, of course, right after the budget is presented in the House, the first part of the accountability cycle is the plans and priorities where the government talks about how it will implement what was presented in the budget. That document in itself is not appropriate, is not substantial, is not all that is required and has to be improved.
The whole estimates process continues throughout the year every year. When we look at the budgeting process of the House everyone will acknowledge there are lots of flaws. It does not take a member of Parliament long to figure that out.
When I first came here in 1993, I was on the agriculture committee. In my life before politics I was a farmer and also worked as a farm economist with Alberta agriculture. One of the things I did was look at programs that the provincial and federal governments had put in place dealing with farmers, farm training, business management and several other areas.
I was part of a team for the province of Alberta who got together with federal officials to put together some joint farm management programs and other similar programs between the federal and provincial governments. I knew those programs intimately from that point of view.
When I came to Ottawa in 1994, I looked through the numbers in the estimates and wondered where the spending was on these programs. I could not tell from the estimates document where the spending was reported in the estimates. It was at one of the very first meetings of the agriculture committee while reviewing the estimates when I realized that something had to change.
We have had an awful lot of talk about change to improve that whole process but it has been mostly talk. Some changes have been made but for the almost 12 years I have been here it is not nearly enough. The government is not being held to account any better now than it was when I first came here in 1994.
To give some credit to members of Parliament from all parties, our party, the previous Reform Party and Alliance Party, and now the Conservative Party, has led the charge in many ways, but members from all parties, even the government side, have worked hard to improve this process. However the government and departments move along kicking and scratching as slowly as they possibly can when it comes to actually allowing these changes to take place.
A long list of some excellent reports have come out on this issue and it is worth talking about some of them. The good work done in these reports should be acknowledged. The unfortunate thing is that most of them have not led to substantial change, although I did talk about some success, again due to the hard work of members of Parliament from all parties and certainly my party was very much involved.
I just want to refer to a few key reports. The first report, entitled “The Business of Supply: Completing the Circle of Control”, was a report presented by the Subcommittee of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs in December 1998, almost seven years ago. It is referred to as the Williams-Catterall report or Catterall-Williams report, depending upon who is referring to it. The co-chairs were a government member and a member of the Reform Party at the time.
The report actually lead to the establishment of the committee that I now chair, the Committee on Government Operations and Estimates, which is the committee that presented the motion to allow more time for committees to properly examine the supplementary estimates B. That is a good thing that has happened.
This committee provides a higher level of scrutiny of government budgets and government spending than we ever had before. However, as chair of the committee I would be the first to admit that it is nowhere near as high as it should be, and there are several reasons for that.
I do not think it is the members of the committee who are really the problem. I do not think it is the committee itself that is the problem. It is that the government will not allow the changes to happen that are needed to really allow effective scrutiny.
We need other things, and I will talk to those a little bit, but I am sure my colleagues and colleagues from other parties will be prepared to talk about them in more depth. However I want to refer to two other committees before I conclude.
In 2000, five years ago, the Standing Committee on Procedure and House affairs presented a report entitled “Improving Reporting to Parliament a Project -- Phase 2: Moving Forward”. The committee was chaired by a current member of our committee, the government operations and estimates committee. The report really did move things along a little further. I assume the member who was the chair of that committee will probably speak to this. However the committee did move it along a little bit more and there was a bit more improvement in the level of scrutiny but nowhere near enough.
That is clear when we refer to the next report, which was entitled “Meaningful Scrutiny: Practical Improvements to the Estimates Process”. This was a report tabled in September 2003 by the Subcommittee of the Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates chaired by another Liberal member and with members of our party on the committee.
There have many other reports between these reports but these certainly were three of the key reports that quite correctly pointed out a lot of the problems in accountability.
Even after all that, the progress that has been made is nowhere near enough. There is a lot to be done.
I want to talk a bit about what types of things I am talking about just so that is clear. First, there has to be an improvement in the way the estimates are reported to the House, in the way the plans and priorities are presented to the House and in the way the performance reports are presented to the House. None of these reports are nearly as meaningful as they should be.
In fact, most members of Parliament in this House of Commons would argue that those reports are actually meant to hide how the money is being spent rather than to divulge in a way that is easy to figure out. The documents that are supposed to be accountability documents are presented in a fashion that they just do not do what one would expect them to do in terms of giving members of Parliament the information they need to properly examine spending. The problem starts in the way the reporting is done.
I talked about that when I talked about when I came down here in 1994 and tried to find the information on agriculture programs and joint provincial-federal programs but could not find anything in the documents. It took a lot of work for me to dig and actually find out where those numbers were presented.
In going through the documents, I found they were a little here, there and everywhere. It took the department an awful lot of work to figure out how much money had been spent on these programs and where the source was because I wanted to know. We know the source is taxpayer money and that is why we should spend it carefully. However, which departments, which parts of the departments and under what programs the money was delivered was almost impossible to figure out.
Clearly, the problem starts with the way the government reports information to the House. That is the starting point. Then we have a problem with the way committees review this information.
Committees have an awful lot of work to do. Sadly committees of the House of Commons simply do not have enough people in terms of researchers available, people who will work on behalf of members of Parliament to help drive the agenda laid out by the committee. The committee is not engaged in this from day to day. It has a lot of other tasks, functions and work to do. It should get the appropriate information far enough ahead to know what it should examine to deal appropriately with spending estimates, and with the other various reports that come in the yearly cycle and the longer term cycle, and to provide proper scrutiny of the spending of taxpayer money.
Again, that and particularly the supplementary B estimates is the reason we presented the report to the House. We hope the government will respond accordingly.
After three hours of debate, this will go to a vote. I would be very surprised if any member of any party voted against the report. It is a report that does a very small part of what has to be done, but at least we decided we would tackle this and carry on from there.
Quite frankly, as chair of the Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates, I and other committee members have done a lot of work over the last few months to try to make the committee operate even more effectively, especially in terms of using the research available and having more research available. Researchers specifically should be looking at the estimates, the performance reports and the yearly cycle. They should be giving the members of the committee the information they need ahead of time so we can do a better job of providing that scrutiny.
We have moved a small way. We do a better job of monitoring the spending of taxpayer money than we did when I came here in 1994. Credit goes to members of all political parties, but we have an awful long way to go and we have to look now at moving that along. We do not need another report. There may come a time in a few years where another report to move things to the next step will be required.
I referred to the information in the three reports. If we implemented more of those recommendations, we would do a much better job. That is a starting point. We do not need any fancy report. We need to implement more of these and there is an lot that can be done in that regard.
If we look, in a very broad, at some of the things we should do to improve the whole process of scrutiny, we should remember that the main purpose of committee review of the estimates is to hold the government to account. That means the committee should ask the tough questions in public about what Canadians get for the tax dollars the government spends on their behalf. This is the first point and that means we have to go through this process better.
I have only a minute left so I will not get into more of the specifics of what I would like to say. I will leave that to my colleagues and to members of other political parties. We will see whether the motion is the perfect solution, certainly it is a reasonable solution. I hope Parliament will pass it and I look forward to the vote on it. I look forward to great improvements to be made in the years to come in terms of more carefully scrutinizing the way government spends taxpayer dollars.
I look forward to the committee being effective. When I am on the other side after the next election, and I hope Canadians will provide that opportunity for me and my colleagues because we would be good for the country, I expect the committee to do a better job. If I am on the other side in government, and I expect that to be the case, it is critical the committee do a better job and I will do what I can to help that happen.