Madam Speaker, despite the partisan chipping that goes on, looking around this place I see all of the people whom I know personally and consider to be my friends, and it has nothing to do with political parties. However, when it gets down to issues of importance, we tend to dig in and give it our best shot. That is really important to the democratic process. If we were all to agree on all things, this would be a very boring place.
I think all the members on our committee would admit that we are probably the least partisan committee on the Hill. We get along extremely well. We have, from time to time, made some tough decisions, for instance a significant cut to the Governor General's budget. I believe it was more a demonstration of a broader concern than it was of spending, but this issue of estimates is really important.
I have often thought that most people would think that the estimates are like reading the telephone book. It is something that one can only do for so long before one's eyes become mesmerized and cannot focus.
I was very concerned to know that in the history of Parliament less than half the standing committees of the House ever report back estimates or supplementary estimates to the House. Why does that happen? I guess the reason is that we have a rule in the Standing Orders that says that if the estimates are not reported back, they are deemed to have been reported back without amendment. In other words, if we do nothing there are no consequences. This is part of the problem. There is no incentive.
I participated in a modernization of Parliament committee. I believe Mr. Speaker might have even been a part of this as well. One of the things, among many changes that we continue to consider on an all party basis, was how we could make this place run a little better. One of the changes we did make, and I am not sure if many people realize this, was that if a committee did not report back the estimates, there was an obligation under the Standing Orders to either inform the Speaker in writing or to appear in the House to explain why the estimates were not returned. I have a feeling that is not being enforced, or at least that recommendation was not ratified even though it was recommended by the modernization committee.
It is a very small but important step, so that committees have an opportunity to say that if they did not do their job, there is a reason, but if it is because they are too busy or because there is so much legislation and they are not sure which has precedence, these are contradictions.
Speaking to this specific concurrence motion before the House, on a Thursday we got the numbers and it was time to do the review of the supplementary estimates (B). The committee only had one more regular day of meetings, the following Tuesday, and then it had to be reported to the House during routine proceedings on the Thursday. That meant that the committee really only had one scheduled sitting day.
I know we had this discussion, that if our meeting was on Tuesday, that meant we had to do everything that day, but we already scheduled something else. We were not given a heck of a lot more time, so we decided to do something else. We agreed in committee, this non-partisan group of MPs who just wanted to do a good job, that everybody would do their own homework and review the supplementary estimates themselves, come back to our meeting on Tuesday, and if there were any questions whatsoever on the numbers that needed an explanation, we would undertake as a committee to get the answers on Wednesday and still report it back.
Notwithstanding the protestations that we could not be accountable, we had a backup plan to deal with any problems. However, the reality is that only three out of 20 committees actually reported back the supplementaries, and only nine of the 20 committees reported back the estimates when they had them on October 8 and had until November 30 to report them back. It would be two months less a week to do the work and less than half of the committees did the work.
There are those who protest that the government is interfering with accountability and we cannot do our work and so on. When there is just under two months to do something and it is not done, and the rules are that if it is not done there are no consequences, this is not something we should blame on anybody but ourselves.
If there is a will to do this, committees have to schedule their work to provide for sufficient meetings. The government operations and estimates committee, unlike others, has a large number of departments for which it has to do reviews. We also have a number of crown corporations and other agencies, about 50 of them, that we have responsibility for and we would never, ever be able to do them all every time.
Even the Auditor General does not review every department every year. Her department does auditing, selection and sampling. It is constantly working on these things and when it sees problems, officials may do it again the next year. It is put on a rotational basis so that with a sampling approach toward things, the Auditor General can get a reasonable assurance that the operations within a department are operating in the prescribed fashion.
I spoke to the Auditor General about this whole process of the estimates. The Auditor General's department has produced a document for the reference of all members of Parliament. We had breakfast one morning about this. We wanted to talk about this informally. The Auditor General was very comfortable if parliamentarians would adopt a very similar approach to the review of the estimates. In terms of looking at the risks, looking at where there were large dollars, and that a small shift in either assumptions or direction might have enormous consequences in terms of spending and undertaking obligations, and indeed on the ultimate determination of a surplus or a deficit.
I remember when the gun registry was a big issue in the 35th Parliament. I know there are a couple of members here who have made it their life's work to continue opposing it. One member is right here and he has done an enormous job, but the registry spending was within the mandate of the justice committee. It was never looked at or queried. This was one piece of the responsibility of the entire justice portfolio and it was never looked at by the committee because members were too busy doing legislation.
Why is it if something is very important to members of Parliament that somehow they cannot say we want to look at it? It is an important policy issue and it is potentially a very expensive issue, and we want to monitor it. Well it did not happen. No one said we could not look at it. Members of Parliament decided that they would not do it because we are too busy doing other things.
We have to take responsibility. I wrote a report on this matter. The former clerk of the House, Robert Marleau, wrote an op-ed piece and it was on the front page of The Hill Times . It said that members of Parliament ignored 50% of their jobs. The 50% of the job was doing a proper review of plans and priorities, the estimates and performance reports.
Canadians cannot be terribly impressed if an eminent person such as the Clerk of the House of Commons makes an indictment like that. It is true because there are only so many hours in a day and I bet every member in this place gets up early in the day and goes to bed very late at night. They are away from their family and have lots on their mind, and some have trouble sleeping and travelling, and all the other attendant things. Yet, there is far more work to do and not enough hours in the day.
How do we deal with it? This report may very well turn out to be a proxy for the House of Commons to re-examine the role of parliamentarians and the way we do our job, so that we can meet our priorities. If the priorities are to micromanage dollars, then let us micromanage dollars. If our priority is to ensure that we have the best qualified people in the role and responsibilities of safeguarding the assets and the controls over spending, let us spend our time monitoring who is in those positions.
If our priority is to change the rules to lock down things really tight so nobody can spend a dollar without coming through Parliament, let us establish that priority. However it takes a collaborative effort.
It would easy for me to simply stand here and say to my colleagues that the opposition is on one side and the government is on the other. The opposition is saying that government does not want us to be accountable. We can get into a partisan dialogue and have a little fun with it but this is not funny. This is serious and it is important. The dollars and cents are taxpayers' money. We all understand that and we do want to do a good job on behalf of Canadians but half of our jobs, maybe even more than half of our jobs, is to take care of our responsibilities at constituency offices.
I know the member quoted me and said that we must make sure we send a little shot over the bow that Parliament did not give us enough time to do the thing and we just wanted members to know, and that was the right thing to do, but we had a way around it.
We did a report. I have been on the government operations committee from its inception. I was the chair in the last Parliament. We had a subcommittee report. The subcommittee was chaired by the member who is currently the government House leader and it had representation from the other parties.
The report contained 21 recommendations. The first recommendation was pursuant to a meeting that we called with each and every chair of every standing committee, and we served them lunch. We asked them to please come to the meeting because we wanted to talk about the issue of reviewing the estimates. We sat them down, they had their sandwiches and their cold drinks, and we asked them what the attitude was of their committee to doing a review of the estimates and getting into this. Members can imagine what was said. Most of them said that it was a nuisance, an annoyance, that it gets in the way, that they were too busy, that they did not do them, that it was like reading the phone book and that nobody had ever explained it to them.
The first recommendation in the report of the Subcommittee on Government Operations and Estimates, entitled “Meaningful Scrutiny: Practical Improvements to the Estimates Process”, which was in the second session of the 36th Parliament, was that when a member of Parliament comes to this place they ought to get some orientation on how to understand the estimates, the meaning of the words and the vocabulary.
We knew that not every member of the House was a bean counter or an accountant. We knew that not everyone liked dealing with pages and pages of numbers. As one member said, it is a stack of books. However we do not all look at the full stack of books. We second those responsibilities of other departments to other standing committees because we all take a share of the pie. When we come together and we all do the work obviously an adequate review is done.
I think we should be very careful on how we assess the responsibility for the situation in which we find ourselves. I have no doubt that there is support for the concurrence motion and that we should do everything possible to ensure committees get more than a few days to do a review of supplementary estimates.
However a responsible committee would understand, and the chair certainly understands, that the supplementaries are coming before the end of March so why would the committee schedule meetings during those times? Why would the committees lock up all their meetings when they know the supplementaries are coming? They should have left the time open and then there would not have been a problem.
However we just carry on in our merry old way and, if it does not happen the way we want it, then we use the excuse that we already had business or witnesses planned.
I really commend the report to members to learn a little bit about the estimates process. I think members should also take the opportunity to give their input from their own committee perspective.
I hope every member will go back to their standing committee and ask what the committee's track record is on doing a review of the estimates, of having people in, of reviewing the numbers, of taking the responsibility for doing an appropriate review and of reporting it back to the House. Half of those committees have not done it and have not done it for years, and yet there is important spending going on there.
We are responsible. The problem is us collectively as members of Parliament. I am sorry if I sound like I am preaching but it is important. It is not enough to say that the committees are now controlled by the opposition, which they are, because when people work together they deal with the priorities in a fashion that is in the best interests of all Canadians. That is what we are here for.
I will support the concurrence motion because I recommended it and supported it in committee. However I want Canadians to understand that when certain things happen and one does not listen to the rhetoric or the allegations but gets the facts, one understands that the problem is not somebody deliberating trying to interfere with the ability of members of Parliament to do their jobs. It is in fact that members of Parliament have decided on priorities which are other than reviewing the estimates and the supplementary estimates.