Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to finally rise to address the issue of these main estimates. This debate on the main estimates is very different than we have in the past because there is a new mechanism for how the government is seeking to appropriate all of the money that it says it requires for its new budget initiatives. As members in this place will know, I have tried, in a number of ways, to have a debate in the House on this, so I very pleased that we are finally getting an opportunity, if only briefly, to discuss this.
I made a request of the President of the Treasury Board to have a take-note debate on this, I made a request of you, Mr. Speaker, that we have an emergency debate on this, I raised it in a number of different ways at committee, and, yes, I have been frustrated. There was some allusion made already to what debate at committee looked like. There was one meeting where the committee adjourned with 40 minutes left on the clock in our scheduled time because government members saw fit to adjourn the committee rather than stick around to do our duty and study the main estimates. On another occasion, Liberals left the meeting en masse so there was no quorum and the meeting collapsed. The chair made arrangements for us to go back and continue the study of the estimates, but when the time came to resume that study, all six Liberal members did not show up and the meeting could not continue.
Although the estimates on Treasury Board have been reported back to the House, it is important to note that they were deemed reported back and not, in fact, approved by the committee. While I know that from a procedural point of view that makes no difference in the House, from a moral point of view, it makes an important difference, because the fact of the matter is that the new mechanism was not approved by the committee but simply deemed approved. Therefore, it is important that we now address that issue.
I will direct some of my remarks directly to what the President of the Treasury Board said tonight in this debate. He talked about the fact that the estimates process has not been a perfect process. I do not think any members here would disagree. We know that it was dysfunctional to have estimates tabled only days after the budget was presented in the House and to not have any new budget initiatives reflected in the estimates. That is why New Democrats, as a party, were quite open to the idea that we would delay the tabling of the main estimates on a trial basis in order to give the government more time to do its due diligence and move new budget initiatives through the Treasury Board process so that the rigorous costing was done, so that the program planning was done, and so that government would be able to answer questions about how it proposes to spend the money allocated for new budget initiatives.
In fact, that is not what happened. Instead, the government decided to create a new central vote, heretofore unprecedented, and dump all of the proposed spending into the one vote. That had a number of important consequences for the study of the estimates. For one, it kind of broke the committee study process, because instead of having those new budget initiatives that under the old system would have, in time, gone to the subject expert committees, all of those things went to one committee, the Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates, which is not an expert on the environment, health, or defence, and yet it was being asked to evaluate the new spending proposals in the government's budget. Therefore, that was not particularly good from a study point of view.
It also undermined the process because we were being referred to a document, namely, the budget, which is outside the usual estimates process, in order to get information about that spending. However, the budget document is, by its nature, vague and the vagueness of the budget may be frustrating from time to time, but it is not inappropriate. It is a policy document in which the government lays out its high-level goals and throws some figures in. They are not the real figures or the end figures, those come in the estimates, but that is why there are two different processes. The government has been kind of conflating those processes and, in the end, diluting the importance and accuracy of the estimates. Therefore, there was a problem in the way these estimates were going to be studied, but also in terms of referring us to less detailed documents.
We saw, time and time again, with department officials who came to committee, that they do not have a plan. We even saw some of them were just genuinely confused. They did not understand how this new system worked and how it was they were supposed to be getting money that was not reflected in their main departmental estimates. That confusion was apparent at committee when the Liberals, as a kind of Hail Mary pass, decided to have an omnibus study meeting on the last day before the estimates would be deemed back to the House, where they invited officials from a dozen different departments to present within an hour or so.
Earlier, an honourable member talked about how frustrating it is to only get seven minutes with a minister on the entire department. Well, imagine getting 14 minutes with 12 departments. Do the math on that and it is about a minute per department for all of the new budget spending. That is only because not all the departments were even represented. I do not think that meeting met the threshold of rigorous scrutiny that people would expect.
There have been a number of procedural problems because this vote does not fit our normal processes, and so parliamentarians have been trying to work that out as best they can at committee. Of course, the real solution would be not to have a vote like this at all.
I started by saying that we were in a position where there was a problem with the process. We were open to the idea of allowing a later tabling of the estimates so the government could do the rigorous costing and get it through Treasury Board so officials could actually answer questions about what the proposed spending was. Instead, what we were given was a mechanism where there is a nice table that aligns with what is in the budget, but we cannot actually do our work as parliamentarians to hold the government to account and see if it has a decent plan for how it is going to spend that money.
This is where I want to get to some of the remarks of the President of the Treasury Board, because I think that by an intellectual sleight of hand he is missing the point. The point was never just to have the kind of soft budgeting numbers from the budget document reflected in the estimates. The idea was that we would get the harder, more rigorous numbers developed through the Treasury Board process in the estimates for the new budget initiative so parliamentarians could actually do their due diligence in the main estimates that represented the budget.
Instead, we have been asked to trade off information that aligns better between the two documents against our actual powers of oversight and accountability with government. That is not just my analysis, that is what the Parliamentary Budget Officer said with respect to the budget implementation vote as well. It was very clear there was a trade-off here, and on the other side of that trade-off was a sacrifice of parliamentary accountability.
What we have heard consistently from the minister and his officials at committee is that somehow parliamentarians are supposed to be satisfied that they can hold the government to account and perform their oversight function if they get the information after the money is spent. They somehow think accountability works by giving a blanket approval to, in this case, over $7 billion worth of funding, and then getting a note posted online after about how the government spent the money. If that money is not well spent, the fact is there is no way to take it back. Canadians do not get that money back. That is why they send us here to do our due diligence and make sure the government has a realistic plan before authority is given for that spending.
That is the important principle being undermined here, and one that has not been addressed in the arguments of the President of the Treasury Board. I wish he would explain how it is he thinks that is an acceptable model. That was the basis of the question I posed to him earlier this evening that he did not answer. I do not see how he could accept this notion of retroactive accountability as the basis for the Treasury Board's own work.
The Treasury Board has an important accountability function within government. Its job is to challenge departments and make sure that their business plan, or whatever we want to call it, or their strategic plan for new government initiatives make sense, that they have done their due diligence, have done appropriate costing, and have considered different ways of running a program. I find it very hard to believe that the President of the Treasury Board would find it acceptable if departments came to the Treasury Board and said that instead of having it ask them all these obnoxious questions, because they are not really sure what they are going to do yet, to stop badgering them if they agree with the goals about how they are going to get it done.
Suppose department officials could say they were going to go away and figure it out, and that the President of the Treasury Board did not have to tell them how to do it, because they knew how to do their job. When they were finished and had signed the contracts and paid the money, then they would post online what they did, and the officials at Treasury Board could look it up. If they did not like it they could call the departments and talk about it, and that would be Treasury Board holding them to account.
It is laughable. I certainly hope Treasury Board would not accept that model for itself. The idea that Treasury Board officials think that parliamentarians should accept that notion of accountability for Parliament and that Parliament should understand its accountability function for government in that way is an insult to this place. It makes perfect sense that parliamentarians would be able to ask questions of government departments in terms of what they are going to do with money.
As an example, in these estimates there is approximately $54 million under Treasury Board vote 40, or the budget implementation vote, for the Canada Border Services Agency, to strengthen the border and to help the CBSA. There are a lot of ways. We have had debates in this House about the border. Different people have different ideas about what ought to be done on the border. They cannot tell me it does not matter to parliamentarians whether the government ultimately uses that money to hire more CBSA staff, to buy guns, or to build a wall. Those are three ways to strengthen the border on some interpretations. Obviously, some are better than others.
The idea that it would not matter to parliamentarians which of those three roads the government was planning to take is ridiculous. However, we have heard from Treasury Board officials at committee that it is not the business of parliamentarians to plan programs and to wonder how the money exactly is going to be spent, that parliamentarians should be satisfied with high-level—read “vacuous”—goal statements like “Strengthening the Canada Border Services Agency”. We cannot approve money on that basis alone and Parliament has already recognized that.
That is why we have had a rigorous process, not a perfect process by any means but a process that at least in principle allowed parliamentarians to interrogate ministers about the plans for the departments and particular line items in the budget to know how they were planning to spend that money. That is not some cute principle. It is essential in order for parliamentarians to be able to do their jobs. I have found it astonishing that the Treasury Board, who recognizes that in its own work, and ought to, does not see that Parliament requires information as well, in order to be able to be said to be an accountable body.
There is a need for accountability. That is something certainly that the Liberals recognized in the last campaign.
Let us take a recent example of the Phoenix pay system where the Auditor General has called it an “incomprehensible failure”, because at various stages in the process people were not asking the right questions, or they were accepting answers that needed to be challenged and those answers were not being challenged. The fact of the matter is that for an organization as large as the Government of Canada, if it is going to have proper accountability for spending, it needs to have multiple accountability mechanisms.
Parliament is one of the most important and fundamental of those mechanisms. Therefore, it is wrong for us to be undermining the power of Parliament to provide effective oversight for government spending. I am not saying that the estimates process alone would have stopped Phoenix. Obviously money for Phoenix was appropriated under the estimates process. However, it is one of those important checks and balances, and if we allow each of those checks and balances to be undermined because no one check and balance is the be-all and end-all, eventually we are going to find ourselves in a situation where we do not have an appropriate number of checks and balances.
As I say, Parliament is one of the most important because it is the accountability process that gives the political and moral legitimacy for government to pursue certain measures. It is not a simple control. It is actually one of the most important controls because it is the one that confers legitimacy to government programs.
That is, in essence, the real problem with Treasury Board vote 40, or the budget implementation vote. It does not allow Parliament to do its job.
Getting more information is good. I do not think anybody here is opposed to the idea of having more information, or having the information presented in a more digestible way, where it is more obvious how what was announced in the budget lines up with what is being asked for in the estimates. The President of the Treasury Board is trying to defeat a straw man here, because nobody is saying that it is not better to have that information.
That information should not come at the cost of meaningful oversight, and it does not have to. That is what we heard from the Parliamentary Budget Officer. Frankly, it is what we heard from the President of the Treasury Board when he referred to the Australian model as the gold standard.
Australia does not have a huge omnibus central vote for all of the new budget initiatives. Australia has a Department of Finance and a treasury board secretariat that co-operate in advance of the budget being released. They communicate to the departments which initiatives on their departmental wish lists are going to get into the budget. Then they work with those departments to do the rigorous costing process and to run those programs through treasury board before the budget is announced. That allows them to table their main estimates at the same time as the budget without asking Parliament to sacrifice its power of oversight, without telling parliamentarians that they cannot answer questions about how to spend the money because they have not figured it out yet.
It is important to note that the model that the President of the Treasury Board is invoking as a justification for what he is doing does not support the idea of a central budget vote. It is something very different.
It is lamentable that the President of the Treasury Board did not get buy-in from his colleagues in government in order to be able to accomplish that feat. I recognize that cultural change within an organization is not easy but it is incumbent upon the minister to get that job done within government. For him to impose a lack of accountability on Parliament and to undermine the work of parliamentarians in terms of holding the government to account with respect to the government's financial plan is wrong. It is not the place of the executive to undermine the authority of this place with respect to financial matters.
That is a major problem. I cannot stress enough the frustration that I feel when we listen to members on that side talking about how we have to suffer this red herring about coordinating the two documents. There were lots of ways that the budget and the estimates could have been better coordinated in terms of the information and cross-referencing of that information without asking parliamentarians not to do their job.
Another issue that deserves to be addressed is the idea of online reporting. I am not opposed to it but I do have a problem with its being a substitute for parliamentarians receiving information in the proper way in this place and having that information tabled in this place.
We all know, without accusing the government of the day of doing anything like this, that some governments are more unscrupulous than others and online information can be changed. When we get official documents in this place they are in a form that is not alterable. If it is published and tabled in the House of Commons, it exists in a particular form and it is public. While a website is public, the information on it can be changed and changed in a way that does not record the fact that it has been changed. It can appear one way one day, and another way on another day.
That is why there is a certain permanency to the documents that are here and that is important. It is a reason why parliamentarians should not be quick to accept promises of online publication as a substitute for documents duly tabled here in the House of Commons.