Mr. Speaker, I will be sharing my time today with my colleague for Chilliwack—Hope.
First, I am so pleased to hear that our colleague for Scarborough—Agincourt will be speaking again, and that this was not his last speech today.
I rise today to speak to Motion No. 18, the government motion mostly about the estimates process and the government's shameful move to reduce parliamentary oversight by changing the tabling and reporting dates of the main estimates. It is the government's misguided and cynical attempt to change the estimates process so it appears it is trying to do something, anything actually.
How did we get to this point?
Over a year ago, the Treasury Board President appeared in the operations and estimates committee, OGGO, to discuss the difficulty in understanding the estimates process. We discussed the alignment of the estimates to the budget, accrual versus cash accounting, and the unclear reporting of the departments. He proposed a solution, which was an odd one. His solution to all of these problems was to simply take away two months of oversight by moving the tabling of the estimates to May 1 from March 1, allow zero time for the opposition to study the estimates before choosing the two committees of the whole, and take away a few supply days. This was supposed to be the solution to the issue of the estimates being difficult to understand. If members do not understand the process, then surely the government will give them less time. That must be solution.
Despite the government having proved completely unable to fix its own internal administrative processes, the President of the Treasury Board decided the solution was to take away two months of oversight on the estimates. We were told that changing the Standing Orders to allow the government to move the tabling of the estimates from March 1 to May 1, leaving parliamentarians just over a month before the estimates were considered reported, would allow the government to ensure more of the budget would be in the estimates.
We asked the Treasury Board President about these concerns in committee and we were told not to worry, that we could change the Standing Orders back in a couple of years. We were told not to worry about having only five sitting weeks in May and June to review the estimates. The Liberals would guarantee that ministers would show up to all committee meetings regarding the main estimates. To quote the committee evidence, the President of the Treasury Board stated “.You have my personal commitment, but also the commitment of our government, to make sure that is the case”, that the ministers will show up.
The current Minister of Public Services is on leave and the department in an absolute mess. There is the Liberal Phoenix fiasco. There is the Liberals's on-again, off-again love affair with Boeing, which is truly sad. In Paris right now the love affair is off. It is very odd that the city of love cannot get back the love affair with Boeing. There was the scandal of the Liberal Party executives deleting emails in Shared Services Canada, reminiscent of Hillary Clinton. Then there is the ongoing shipbuilding delays that are costing taxpayers billions.
Therefore, with all of this going on, do members think the fill-in minister, if anyone even knows who that person is, or the parliamentary secretary would show up for the estimates? I am pretty sure members can guess what the answer is: No. The first chance the government had to put its money where its mouth was and we ended up with the deputy minister of Public Services and Procurement representing the minister. It was not that the deputy minister did not do a great job. We got all the same nonsensical answers we would have received from the minister herself, but it was the principle of the thing.
Kin Hubbard, the American satirist, had an oft-quoted line, “When a fellow says, 'It ain't the money but the principle of the thing,' it's the money.” In this case, it is both; it is the principle and the money, taxpayer money.
Another well-known and similar quote from H. L. Mencken is, “When somebody says it’s not about the money, it’s about the money.” Now Mencken was a very influential and prolific journalist in America during the depression area. He wrote a lot about the shenanigans and shams of con artists in the world. He would have had a lot of fun writing about this, because shams of con artists were his specialty.
The government is saying that to improve transparency, we must decrease transparency. In order to give more power of oversight to parliamentarians, we must first take away oversight to parliamentarians.
We told the Treasury Board President that if there was an alignment issue, why not move the budget up to an earlier fixed date. This was recommended by the all-party OGGO report in 2012 on the estimates. He told us that it was not possible due to timing issues. Therefore, we have two rulings on timing issues; unilaterally changing the Standing Orders on estimates is good, changing timing for the budget is bad.
Before anyone thinks this is just a partisan rant about the government, it is not just me who thinks the government is completely wrong on the issue. The PBO noted:
Before agreeing to the changes proposed by the Government, parliamentarians may wish revisit the core problem that undermines their financial scrutiny: the Government’s own internal administrative processes.
The PBO was in committee just this morning and again noted that moving the date would have little to no effect on alignment if the internal processes on budget and spending approval are not reformed, which is not happening. He further stated that taking away time for MPs to scrutinize government spending, as this motion would do, would be of no benefit at all to Parliament or to oversight by parliamentarians. The PBO proved this point by pointing out in a supplementary estimates analysis how many new budget measures appeared in each supplementary estimate.
In the 2016 supplementary estimates (A), 70% of new spending announced in the budget was in the supplementary estimates (A). If we go a year closer, with all the hard work they put into it, we see a new total of just 44% in the supplementary estimates (A). Incredibly, in response to this failure, the TBS president said it was “progress”.
We asked the minister to share his plans to reform the internal process and achieve alignment, and he refused, referring instead to his four-pillar discussion paper as a “concrete plan”, in his words. That is the same paper the PBO just this morning inconveniently noted was not a plan, since it had nothing concrete in it to address the process issues.
We further asked the TBS president if he would follow parliamentary tradition and make no changes to the Standing Orders without unanimous consent of the opposition parties. He said—well, actually, he did not say.
My learned colleague from Moose Jaw—Lake Centre—Lanigan, who is our committee chair, asked repeatedly if, as was the long-held custom, the TBS president would commit to changes to Standing Orders only if he had all-party support. It was like asking the Prime Minister how many meetings he had with the Ethics Commissioner. All we got was non-answers.
Now we know why he would not answer such a simple question: they planned all along just to ram the changes down the throats of the opposition. What is next when this little experiment fails? Will it be further reduction in oversight?
In committee, the Treasury Board president trotted out a line from an interview with Kevin Page, the former PBO, as justification for his plans. He quoted Kevin Page as saying, “I support your recommendation that this adjustment may take two years to implement.” There was nothing about its being a good idea; it was just that it would take two years to implement. What the Treasury Board president did not know, however, were a couple of other thoughts from Kevin Page, also in a Globe and Mail interview. The former parliamentary budget officer stated:
The recommendations for change in the discussion paper seem to have come from a public servant's perspective.
It is not from a parliamentary perspective or a perspective of oversight to protect taxpayers, but from a public servant's perspective.
The article continues:
The report does not start from the perspective of the financial-control responsibilities of Parliament.
With great respect to [the Treasury Board president]...the specific proposals in the report do not go far to strengthen Parliament's financial control.
The current PBO said of the proposed estimates changes:
With respect to delaying the main estimates, the Government indicates that the core impediment in aligning the budget and estimates arises from the Government's own sclerotic internal administrative processes, rather than parliamentary timelines.
The PBO further noted that:
...the Secretariat is further away from its goal in 2017-18, rather than closer to it. This raises a significant question of whether the Government's proposal to delay the main estimates would result in meaningful alignment with the budget.
In response to these learned experts, the minister said he did not agree with every utterance from the PBO. Those are his exact words: utterances.
On this side of the House, we believe we should pay attention to such utterances. Reducing oversight of spending for no gain does not serve Canadian taxpayers, nor does it serve parliamentarians. I strongly urge the government to withdraw its damaging changes to the estimates timing.