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House of Commons Hansard #86 of the 38th Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was report.

Topics

InfrastructureOral Question Period

3:05 p.m.

Don Valley West Ontario

Liberal

John Godfrey LiberalMinister of State (Infrastructure and Communities)

Mr. Speaker, as the member properly notes, we signed a fantastic deal on Friday with British Columbia and the Union of British Columbia Municipalities.

Negotiations are proceeding well with Ontario and indeed right across the country in every province and territory. However, the money will not flow if the budget does not pass.

I ask the members opposite to hearken to the words of the mayor of Regina, “This budget should not be used as a political pawn”. I would listen to the mayor of Toronto who said, “It would be a huge setback if the gas tax money did not flow”, and the mayor of Vancouver who said, “It would be crazy and stupid to call an election when funding for cities hangs in the balance”.

PrivilegeOral Question Period

3:10 p.m.

The Speaker

I am now prepared to rule on the question of privilege raised on Monday, April 4 by the hon. member for Glengarry—Prescott—Russell arising from a question by the hon. member for Calgary—Nose Hill during that day's question period in which the hon. member made reference to a Liberal member of the House being under criminal investigation.

I would like to thank the hon. member for raising this matter. I would also like to thank the hon. member for Calgary--Nose Hill for her intervention.

In presenting his case, the hon. member for Glengarry--Prescott--Russell stated that during question period, when posing a supplementary question to the hon. Minister of Citizenship and Immigration about a matter involving possible abuses of the temporary resident permit system, the hon. member for Calgary--Nose Hill mentioned that a Liberal member had been under criminal investigation but without naming the member. The hon. member for Glengarry--Prescott--Russell felt this was inappropriate as it “cast a net on every single one of us on this side of the House of Commons” and asked that the hon. member for Calgary--Nose Hill withdraw the reference she made in her question.

In reply, the hon. member for Calgary--Nose Hill stated that her remarks were based on an article found in the Globe and Mail newspaper for March 31 and she quoted from it. I have myself read this press report and note that immediately following the text quoted by the hon. member for Calgary--Nose Hill, another press report states that the named Liberal member denied the allegations made against himself or herself and also states that the RCMP had carried out several interviews but had not talked to the Liberal member in question nor had laid charges.

It seems to me significant that the reported police investigation did not even go as far as talking to the member against whom the allegations had been made and, further to this, that no charges were laid. It is also important to note that the press report does not mention a “criminal” investigation of the Liberal member, in the sense that the Liberal member was suspected of committing a criminal act. Rather, the press report indicates only that allegations made against the member were being investigated. It is possible that the allegations were of interest to the RCMP in relation to suspected criminal activities by persons other than the member named.

For these reasons, I am concerned that all hon. members be mindful of the injury that may be done by quoting in the House media reports about other members. All members of Parliament are hon. members and are entitled to be treated with respect in this chamber and to be given the benefit of the doubt regarding allegations of such a serious nature.

At first glance, the situation here seems to be one where the sub judice convention might apply and constrain members from making the kind of comments made here. However, the difficulty in this matter is that it falls below the threshold for application of the sub judice convention by which members are restrained from making any comments in this House relating to a matter that is before the courts because the convention only applies once charges have been laid. The reference by the hon. member for Calgary--Nose Hill was to a criminal investigation, without any reference to charges being laid against the Liberal member, and before any charges were laid. Furthermore, charges have not been laid since.

Members of Parliament as elected public figures are often subject to criticisms and comments in the media which, on occasion, rightly or wrongly reflect poorly on their actions, if not also their character. The usual rules about defamation do not apply, at least not to the same extent, in respect to members of Parliament. We are expected to accept public criticism and unfavourable personal comment from time to time, however difficult this might be. This applies inside this Chamber as well. However, parliamentary custom expects members not to impugn the character of other members. The mention of a criminal investigation of a Liberal member would seem to have this effect, though the hon. member for Calgary--Nose Hill may not have intended this.

I cannot find that there is a prima facie breach of privilege in this case as I cannot see that the ability of the Liberal members of Parliament to carry out their duties has been impaired. I would encourage all hon. members, however, to respect the usual courtesies and practices of this House, and I would invite the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs to review the application of the sub judice convention as to whether it should also apply when an investigation is alleged or reported before charges are laid, which is a little more work for the committee.

Interparliamentary DelegationsRoutine Proceedings

April 20th, 2005 / 3:15 p.m.

The Speaker

I have the honour to lay upon the table the report of the Canadian parliamentary delegation on its visit to Jamaica from February 28 to March 2, 2005, and I have the honour to lay upon the table the report of the Canadian parliamentary delegation on its visit to the Commonwealth of the Bahamas from March 2-4, 2005.

Certificates of NominationRoutine Proceedings

3:15 p.m.

Beauséjour New Brunswick

Liberal

Dominic LeBlanc LiberalParliamentary Secretary to the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons

Mr. Speaker, pursuant to Standing Order 110(2), I am tabling two certificates of nomination. Both certificates would be referred to the Standing Committee on Transport.

The first one is a certificate of nomination with respect to the Ridley Terminals Inc. The second certificate is with respect to the Great Lakes Pilotage Authority.

Canadian Forces Members and Veterans Re-establishment and Compensation ActRoutine Proceedings

3:15 p.m.

Mississauga East—Cooksville Ontario

Liberal

Albina Guarnieri LiberalMinister of Veterans Affairs

moved for leave to introduce Bill C-45, an act to provide services, assistance and compensation to or in respect of Canadian Forces members and veterans and to make amendments to certain Acts.

(Motions deemed adopted, bill read the first time and printed)

Corrections and Conditional Release ActRoutine Proceedings

3:15 p.m.

Edmonton Centre Alberta

Liberal

Anne McLellan LiberalDeputy Prime Minister and Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness

moved for leave to introduce Bill C-46, an act to amend the Corrections and Conditional Release Act and the Criminal Code.

(Motions deemed adopted, bill read the first time and printed)

Interparliamentary DelegationsRoutine Proceedings

3:15 p.m.

Bloc

Christian Simard Bloc Beauport, QC

Pursuant to Standing Order 34(1), I have the honour to present to the House, in both official languages, the report of the Canadian Branch of the Assemblée parlementaire de la Francophonie, respecting its participation in the meeting of the Political Committee of the APF held in Libreville, Gabon, from March 3 to 6, 2005.

Committees of the HouseRoutine Proceedings

3:20 p.m.

Liberal

Massimo Pacetti Liberal Saint-Léonard—Saint-Michel, QC

Mr. Speaker, I have the honour to present, in both official languages, the ninth report of the Standing Committee on Finance. In accordance with its order of reference of Friday, February 25, the committee has considered votes 1, 5, 10, L15, 30 and 35 under Finance in the main estimates for the fiscal year ending March 31, 2006, and reports the same.

(Bill C-243. On the Order: Private Members' Business:)

Second reading and reference to Standing Committee on Justice, Human Rights, Public Safety and Emergency Preparednesss of Bill C-243, an act to amend the Corrections and Conditional Release Act (establishment of the Office of Victims Ombudsman of Canada)--Member for Nickel Belt

Corrections and Conditional Release ActRoutine Proceedings

3:20 p.m.

Liberal

Raymond Bonin Liberal Nickel Belt, ON

Mr. Speaker, there have been consultations among the parties and I think you will find unanimous consent for me to withdraw my Bill C-243.

Corrections and Conditional Release ActRoutine Proceedings

3:20 p.m.

The Speaker

Is that agreed?

Corrections and Conditional Release ActRoutine Proceedings

3:20 p.m.

Some hon. members

Agreed.

(Order discharged and bill withdrawn)

Committees of the HouseRoutine Proceedings

3:20 p.m.

Conservative

Leon Benoit Conservative Vegreville—Wainwright, AB

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.

Committees of the HouseRoutine Proceedings

3:40 p.m.

Liberal

Paul Szabo Liberal Mississauga South, ON

Madam Speaker, I do not think there will be much disagreement with regard to the motion itself. As vice-chair of that committee, the prospect of calling a number of departmental representatives before the committee to do a review of the supplementary estimates and to report back within basically two days was somewhat unrealistic. We only have one meeting to do this.

Although we have a lot of different departments to deal with, we were not dealing with the main estimates. We were dealing with the supplementary estimates, which were the final adjustments for the last fiscal year. It was not a big deal in the sense that many of the adjustments in the supplementary estimates substantively put into place any labour agreements that may have been reached since the review of the estimates and the supplementary A estimates.

The committee was given the opportunity to look at the supplementary B estimates. The member will recall there was a fallback plan that in the event any members from any of the parties had any concerns or questions, those questions would be resolved fully to their satisfaction prior to reporting back to the House. There is no question that it was definitely inconvenient.

The member has now raised all kinds of other issues regarding how we do the estimates. It is important to discuss this area, but I am not sure if this is the time to discuss it.

My question to him relates to his allegation that the government is doing something that does not allow members of Parliament to do their job. I would question the member's allegation on that.

It is the responsibility of parliamentarians to do the work. Parliamentarians have the tools to not only look at the documents but to call as many witnesses as they want from departments. We have the tools to get internal reports and to have visitations to look at certain things. There are an enormous number of tools available to us. However, members of Parliament do not often do those things for one simple reason. It is primarily because there are not enough resources, research capabilities, assets or time in the committee's schedule to do that.

I would ask the member to reconsider whether the fault lies with the government or whether it lies in the way we are structured in that what we choose to do in committee does not go as far as it really could and should.

Committees of the HouseRoutine Proceedings

3:45 p.m.

Conservative

Leon Benoit Conservative Vegreville—Wainwright, AB

Madam Speaker, before I answer the member's question, all members of the committee try to do their job. This is a non-partisan committee and everyone works together very cooperatively. even those members on the government side. From that point of view, it is a refreshing committee of which to be a part.

All members of Parliament want to do a proper job of scrutinizing the spending of taxpayers' hard earned money. We are talking about money that is earned by our families, our friends and our neighbours back home. That is the reality. We are talking about billions of hard earned dollars which are sent $1,000 here and $1,000 there, sometimes too many thousands of dollars. Taxes are certainly too high. If we can do a better job of focusing the spending and if we can do a better job of scrutinizing that spending, then we can take less money from people but still provide the services that are necessary. That is the goal of my party.

The member has asked if this is the fault of the government. I would argue that in many ways it is. It is a different situation on committees now than in the past because we have a minority government. The opposition has a majority on committees now. We have a lot of say now. In the past the government had the majority and it used its majority to prevent the committee from providing appropriate scrutiny. The member knows that.

Let me refer quickly to one particular case and that would be the sponsorship program. That number was questioned at a committee I believe in 1998. Certainly it was taken to a committee after that and the committee questioned the 2000 expenditures. The minister was there. The government side of the committee hid the information. To that extent, I would argue--

Committees of the HouseRoutine Proceedings

3:45 p.m.

Liberal

Paul Szabo Liberal Mississauga South, ON

Madam Speaker, I rise on a point of order. It would be totally improper for the government to hide information. In fact, it was as a result of an internal audit that was posted on the website of public works and government services. How could it be hidden? The member has misspoken. He has misled the House on this matter.

Committees of the HouseRoutine Proceedings

3:45 p.m.

The Acting Speaker (Hon. Jean Augustine)

That is a point of debate. The hon. member for Calgary Centre.

Committees of the HouseRoutine Proceedings

3:45 p.m.

Conservative

Lee Richardson Conservative Calgary South Centre, AB

Madam Speaker, I will be brief because I know the member will want to respond. I first have to address the previous question by the apologist from the Liberal Party on the other side.

This is a very serious matter. I give all the credit to the hon. member for Vegreville—Wainwright for bringing it to the House and pursuing this. We are talking about here is the basic scrutiny of the expenditure of taxpayer money. We are doing everything we can to bring this to light under constant muzzling from the Liberal Party, and hiding expenditures. This was an opportunity. The Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates was created to bring greater scrutiny. It is being muzzled by the government, by apologists such as the member, preventing us from looking at the expenditure of people's money.

Through all the member's efforts, are we getting anywhere? We heard through the election campaign and through the Prime Minister's leadership campaign how he would reduce the democratic deficit. Is it working? Is anything really happening? Has there been any constructive effort on the part of the government?

Committees of the HouseRoutine Proceedings

3:50 p.m.

Conservative

Leon Benoit Conservative Vegreville—Wainwright, AB

Madam Speaker, as chair of the committee I want to answer this very carefully. I would say no, we have not seen any effort on the part of the government. On the other hand, all members of the committee have been cooperative and have really tried to do a good job of providing that scrutiny. That includes the government members on the committee. They are really trying to do a good job. We work together in a very non-partisan fashion.

If the member is asking me if the government has driven any movement to try to provide more meaningful information, to try to have performance reports that actually reflect the performance of the department, and for all that the answer is no. They do not want the information to improve. There is a lot of talk about improvement. The current President of the Treasury Board has talked a lot about how he will change things at Treasury Board and that we will have better reporting. However, it has not happened.

I doubt we will ever see the government improve that process. It will be up to us in the time we have remaining before the election.

This is an important thing to remember, and It will be up to us. Should we form the government after the election, and I believe we will but that is up to voters, I do not want to prejudge, then it is clearly still up to us to ensure the committee functions a lot better. It is up to us as government then to ensure the information given to all committees is information that will allow them to figure out how the money is spent, not to hide it as is too often the case right now.

Committees of the HouseRoutine Proceedings

3:50 p.m.

Conservative

Lee Richardson Conservative Calgary South Centre, AB

Madam Speaker, I forgot to mention the cynicism in the country. I think it is particularly important at this time, with the scandals going on in the current government, that we proceed with this and that we get it. I would hope that the hon. member would be able to assure us that we could have passage of the motion today.

Committees of the HouseRoutine Proceedings

3:50 p.m.

Conservative

Leon Benoit Conservative Vegreville—Wainwright, AB

Madam Speaker, after the three hours of debate and after everyone has had their say, there will be a vote. I am confident that the vote will pass. I do not know why it would not pass. It would be really hard to figure out, that the government would reject the concept of giving us just 21 sitting days to examine the supplementary estimates B and report them back to the House.

I would assume this motion will be passed. It is only a small step, but a significant step in allowing a better job of examining this information.

Committees of the HouseRoutine Proceedings

3:50 p.m.

Beauséjour New Brunswick

Liberal

Dominic LeBlanc LiberalParliamentary Secretary to the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons

Madam Speaker, it is a pleasure for me to speak in this debate on the sixth report of the Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates.

The House is being asked to adopt this report, which reads as follows:

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.

I want to briefly mention the events that led to this report.

The supplementary estimates (B), 2004-05, were tabled in the House on February 25, 2005, and immediately referred to the appropriate standing committees.

March 21 was the last day of the supply period in question and over three weeks after the supplementary estimates were tabled. However, since the House calendar had allotted two weeks for members to work in their ridings and since the committees had to report back to the House by March 10, the committees had only four sitting days in which to consider the supplementary estimates.

On March 8, 2005, the Standing Committee on GovernmentOperations and Estimates considered the supplementary estimates (B) for the Privy Council, the Treasury Board Secretariat, Public Works and Government Services Canada and the Senate. At that meeting, the committee concluded that it lacked the time to properly study the supplementary estimates. Consequently, it passed a motion calling for the supplementary estimates to be tabled at least 21 sitting days before the required reporting date. This was later confirmed at the March 22 meeting.

I would like to emphasize at the outset that the government fully supports improvements to the estimates process to enhance parliamentary scrutiny of government spending. For example, as part of the government's efforts to enhance accountability, the 2005 budget reiterated the government's commitments for improved reporting to Parliament and committed the government to consulting parliamentarians further on this matter. In particular, the budget stated:

--the government will consult with parliamentarians in the coming months to develop a blueprint for improved parliamentary reporting. The blueprint will include the estimates as well as many other reports...Through these consultations, the government will determine how best to provide parliamentarians with more timely and accessible information on program spending and results.

The government continues to welcome proposals to enhance the manner in which the estimates are handled in the House of Commons and notes that the Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates began examining the estimates process in the fall of 2004. The government looks forward to the results of this broader review.

Let me now turn to some of the implications of the report of the government operations committee presently before the House. This report does not raise concerns with the tabling of the supplementary estimates in the fall, as there is ample House time in the fall calendar for committees to review these supplementary estimates.

However, this report would pose a real challenge with the final supplementary estimates in the February-March period. As I noted earlier, committees had four sitting days to review the 2004-5 supplementary estimates (B) this past winter. This is completely consistent with past practice.

For example, in 2004 committees had 10 sitting days to review supplementary estimates (B). In 2003 committees had six sitting days. In each of 2000, 2001 and 2002 committees had only five sitting days. In 1999 committees had only four sitting days and in 1998 committees had only three sitting days to review these supplementary estimates.

If the government had been obliged to table supplementary estimates (B) 21 sitting days in advance, using the 2005 House calendar as an example, the supplementary estimates would have had to have been tabled by February 2. It would have been impractical for the government to present the supplementary estimates this far in advance for a number of reasons.

I would like to outline briefly for the House these reasons. The production of the supplementary estimates is a very time consuming process involving submissions from all the departments, an extensive review process by the Treasury Board Secretariat, approval by the Treasury Board itself, and then the production of these supplementary estimates.

Currently, this process starts in late November-early December in departments with submissions to the Treasury Board Secretariat being made in the first weeks of January in order to have the supplementary estimates ready to be tabled in late February.

Advancing this process to begin even earlier in order to meet an earlier tabling date would not be practical for either departments or for Parliament, given all the current constraints around the business of supply and the nature of the parliamentary calendar.

We also need to keep in mind the purpose of the final supplementary estimates in order to provide funding for unforeseen circumstances and emergencies. Advancing the estimates process any earlier would not be advisable as it would increase the chance that items would be missed which would undermine the very purpose of the final supplementary estimates.

The government's practice has been to table the supplementary estimates at least three weeks before the final supply day, so parliamentarians have sufficient time to examine these supplementary estimates. However, I would like to stress that the government itself does not control the House calendar. In its wisdom, the House has decided that it should have two constituency weeks, that is weeks where members can work in their constituencies in the month of March. The calendar is established by the Speaker following the procedures set out in the Standing Orders and consultations with members of the House.

The House calendar is itself not within the jurisdiction of the government. Should members of Parliament insist on having a full 21 sitting days to review the supplementary estimates each winter then we might have to decide not to have two constituency work weeks in the month of March. This might be the only practical way to ensure the 21 sitting day proposal can in fact be respected.

In conclusion, I would point out that the committee adopted this report shortly after reviewing the supplementary estimates (B) this past year. The committee did not conduct any research into the precise nature of the preparation of these estimates or the time delay required nor did it have any consultations specifically on this matter with the Treasury Board Secretariat or other experts.

I would also point out that this is a very complex question and in our view requires further examination. That is why I note with considerable enthusiasm that the government operations committee has been, as I mentioned earlier, examining the broader issues relating to the estimates process.

I would suggest that the committee examine this specific matter, the need for 21 sitting days before the final supply period, in the context of this broader review. Then the government and all members of the House would be better apprised and better able to make the decisions necessary to contemplate this kind of change.

Committees of the HouseRoutine Proceedings

4 p.m.

Conservative

Leon Benoit Conservative Vegreville—Wainwright, AB

Madam Speaker, I was pleased to see the parliamentary secretary rise to speak directly to our report and to the problem. He acknowledged that there is a problem and has claimed that the 21 days is the problem.

Certainly, the committee came up with 21 days without considering details, although we did discuss it. However, we did not have as long a debate as we could have had as to whether 15 days or 21 days makes more sense. I would certainly be open to a discussion on that. We were upset enough when we were only allowed one day in which we could possibly review the supplementary estimates (B) in committee. That day was already scheduled. We had it scheduled weeks before.

The committee was upset enough that it brought a report before the House. I think the report is a very good starting point. I think we should pass it. If the government, whether it is us or them in a few months down the road, wants to change that figure, we can talk about it. We would be open to that debate.

He said 21 days is too long, that we would have to figure out the supplementary estimates (B), in other words the final spending for the year, in February. What is wrong with that?

I had a secretary back in the days when we had secretaries, who had a notice posted above her desk that read: “A lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on mine”. I think that sums up the situation. The fact that the government does not plan far enough ahead to give the committee this appropriate amount of time to deal with the supplementary estimates (B) is something that the government and the department should fix from their side. The committee feels that it is critical that it should have ample time to examine the supplementary estimates (B) on behalf of Canadian taxpayers.

We take the job of scrutinizing the spending of hard-earned tax dollars very seriously and we need ample time for a review. The government can certainly make a lot of other changes that would be extremely helpful. Those are changes in the way the numbers are reported, by giving ample time for the committee to look at them, and through meaningful performance reports. We just simply do not have that right now and there are lots of other things the government can do. The committee could make some changes too, and we are working on that right now. I would certainly welcome more questions.

Committees of the HouseRoutine Proceedings

4:05 p.m.

Liberal

Dominic LeBlanc Liberal Beauséjour, NB

Madam Speaker, I thank the member for Vegreville--Wainwright for his comments at the beginning of his intervention. Nobody on this side of the House thinks that the idea of one sitting day to review these estimates is by any means an ideal circumstance. I think we share the concern of members of the government operations committee and also of members of other standing committees who also have the responsibility to review these estimates.

We share the view that there can be improvements in this process. That is why I said sincerely that the committee of the hon. member for Vegreville—Wainwright should review this issue. The member for Mississauga South also serves on that committee. It should do so to have this broader review done and to look at, for example, the question of the House calendar in the month of March. Perhaps there is some room in that discussion for changes.

Certainly the government does, always has and always will continue to do everything it can to make sure that we respect the principles of the supplementary estimates and produce them in a timely way, with the amount of detail in the performance reports outlined by hon. members in the interest of making this review much more meaningful and serious.

From our side, to have the committee make recommendations on a broader review of this process, taking into consideration some of the points that I raise, would certainly be something we would welcome.

The report of this committee, as I understood it, as the member for Mississauga South indicated, was not necessarily about a factual problem with these particular estimates; it was more a demonstration of the need to look at the different timelines. My understanding from that particular committee process, and hopefully we will hear from the member for Mississauga South as well, is that members had in fact reviewed those estimates on their own with a view to calling witnesses if in fact they thought it was important to do so. Members of the committee concluded that they did not need to hear specific witnesses with respect to those specific supplementary estimates (B).

I recognize that this an issue. I recognize that members want to be able to exercise their responsibility of oversight of government spending, and these are important estimates. For that reason, to have a broader review and a chance to look at all the different competing factors and timelines I think would be beneficial for the House.

Committees of the HouseRoutine Proceedings

4:05 p.m.

Liberal

Don Boudria Liberal Glengarry—Prescott—Russell, ON

Madam Speaker, I listened with great attention to the hon. parliamentary secretary about this very important subject, but there is something that comes to mind. That is this: there are conflicting principles in all of this.

I have, how should I say it, a little less hair and a few more years than some members around here, meaning to say that I do not have children who are young. I have grandchildren. The issue of the March break is not nearly as important to me as it is to some hon. colleagues. I do not deny that it is important, after many months in winter of sitting and working very hard, which members on all sides of the House do, to have that period off in winter with their families.

Now of course if we have a longer period of time to consider the estimates, in my opinion that effectively means to do away with an innovation of recent years whereby we have given time for members to go to their constituencies to be with their families during the March school break. We cannot do both simultaneously. We cannot produce the estimates earlier. We all know that. That is pretty well fixed. Also, of course, the school districts across the entire country are not going to change the March break because we are sitting. The two principles conflict.

How can we possibly do all this, in other words, give many, many more days to consider the estimates when for instance this year I think we only sat something like five days in the entire month of March? That is the difficulty I have.

I was the leader of the government in the House for many years around here, to date I think the second longest serving one in Canadian history, as a matter of fact, and that was a problem when I was there. I have had colleagues say to me that they needed more time to study estimates. When I said to these same colleagues, “Okay, let us take less time off in March”, they said, “Oh no, we cannot do that”.

How can we possibly do both at the same time? That is the contradiction as I see it. I wonder if my hon. colleague, the parliamentary secretary, sees this problem as I do. How are we going to possibly reconcile that, given the pronouncements of members at House leaders' meetings and every other informal venue when they say very forcefully that they want to be with their families--and there is nothing wrong with that--during those periods in March?

Committees of the HouseRoutine Proceedings

4:10 p.m.

Liberal

Dominic LeBlanc Liberal Beauséjour, NB

Madam Speaker, I think the member for Glengarry—Prescott—Russell is correct in saying that members, particularly those with young families, want to be able to spend some of that time in the month of March at home or travelling with their families.

He referred to his lack of hair; I may have more hair than the hon. member for Glengarry—Prescott—Russell. Like many other members, he referred to his grandchildren. My wife has a 15 year old son, my stepson, Selby Evans. Selby takes the March break according to the New Brunswick school calendar, which this year unfortunately did not collide with the many weeks in March where we did not sit. There was some distress for my wife and me because it is very important for us to spend time as a family during this period.

As I said, the government alone does not control this House calendar, and that is one factor that members will have to consider when they vote on this issue. We have to do so conscious that this may be the sacrifice we decide collectively to make.