Interventions in the House of Commons
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View Daniel Blaikie Profile
View Daniel Blaikie Profile
2018-06-20 16:08 [p.21386]
Mr. Speaker, I rise today on behalf of the many workers at Canadian Nuclear Laboratories who were told three years ago this September that they would be kicked out of the public service pension plan. They are calling on the government to make the legislative changes necessary in order to keep them in the plan, as they have been for the last three years, despite not technically working for government.
View Daniel Blaikie Profile
View Daniel Blaikie Profile
2018-06-20 16:09 [p.21386]
Mr. Speaker, I also rise on behalf of civilian members of the RCMP who had been told at one point that they would be transitioned into the public service and, of course, were concerned about the Phoenix pay system. They were then told that it would be postponed until Phoenix was fixed, and have now been told that the deeming will happen in the year 2020, even though the Auditor General has said that fixing Phoenix may take much longer.
View Daniel Blaikie Profile
View Daniel Blaikie Profile
2018-06-14 14:03 [p.20972]
Mr. Speaker, many people in Elmwood—Transcona are frustrated by their treatment at the hands of the Canada Revenue Agency. My office regularly hears from people who, when trying, in good faith, to get the information they need to file and pay their taxes, have not been able to get through to the CRA. They cannot see a CRA agent in person, they cannot leave a message on the phone, and do not even have the option of waiting on hold. However, if they make a mistake on their tax return, they are shown no leniency.
While hard-working people in Elmwood—Transcona are getting the runaround from the CRA, CEOs and millionaires are getting off the hook. The government has not closed the CEO stock option loophole. It continues to sign sweetheart tax treaties that allow the rich to avoid paying their fair share. KPMG has not suffered any consequences for its role in orchestrating an elaborate tax-dodging scheme.
People are tired of seeing the wealthy and well-connected bending the rules to their advantage, while everybody else is told to fall in line.
It does not have to be this way. A government with the political will to stand up for working people would fix these problems. If the government will not do it, the NDP will.
View Daniel Blaikie Profile
View Daniel Blaikie Profile
2018-06-14 16:34 [p.20996]
Mr. Speaker, I am rising to address the point of order that was raised earlier today by the member for Edmonton West. I understand that there have been a few interventions on this point so far today, so I am happy to make a contribution to that debate on the part of the NDP.
Earlier today, the hon. parliamentary secretary to the government House leader referred to a Standing Order that said that the appropriation bill had to be based on the estimates, and had quite a loose interpretation of what “based” meant.
There are a few other authorities I would like to cite to you, Mr. Speaker, to help you in your deliberations, which show that the relationship between the estimates document and the appropriation bill has to be much tighter than what the parliamentary secretary to the government House leader has suggested.
House of Commons Practice and Procedures, third edition, page 864, reads:
Each budgetary item, or vote, has two essential components: an amount of money and a destination...Should the government wish to change the approved amount or destination of a vote, it must do so either by way of a supplementary estimate or by way of new or amending legislation.
The “destination” is the wording of the vote.
That makes it very clear that there is a way the government can change the destination, or wording of a vote, but it is not to do it willy-nilly between when those estimates are reported back by committee and the introduction of the appropriation bill, that there is a separate process.
Page 865 of House of Commons Practice and Procedures, third edition, reads:
Estimates, outlines spending according to departments, agencies and programs and contains the proposed wording of the conditions governing spending which Parliament will be asked to approve. This information directly supports the schedule of the related appropriation act.
In this case, the schedule of the appropriation act and the wording specifically for Treasury Board Secretariat vote 40 is different than what was presented in the estimates. Therefore, that means committees did not have the opportunity to study that destination. Therefore, vote 40 in the appropriation act is out of order.
I would remind you, Mr. Speaker, of some of your own recent rulings that have emphasized the importance of the committee study process to the estimates. I quote from your May 29 ruling, where you say:
When the government presents estimates to the House, each vote contains an amount of money and a destination, which describes the purpose for which the money will be used. In some cases, the description is quite detailed and in other cases it can be rather general. That said, the estimates are referred to committee specifically to allow members to study them in further detail.
However, the wording of this vote was not referred to committee. It has been changed between reporting back from committee and the appropriation act.
I would also remind you, Mr. Speaker, of your ruling on June 11, where you say: is up to the government to determine the form its request for funds will take. It is for members to decide, in studying and voting on the estimates, whether or not the money should be granted. In the case of vote 40, some members may wish that the request had been in a different form. In the end, they are left to make a decision on the request as the government has presented it.
The way the government presented that request to committee and the way that request was structured when it was studied was one thing. Now it is another thing in the appropriation act. While you have rightly said, Mr. Speaker, that the government has some latitude in determining the form that the request will take initially, that does not mean the government has freedom once it has decided on the form of that request and sent it to committee and they have been deemed reported back, that the government then has a wide-ranging prerogative to change the nature of that request for funding, which is what is happening currently in the appropriation bill as it is worded.
View Daniel Blaikie Profile
View Daniel Blaikie Profile
2018-06-14 17:47 [p.21007]
Mr. Speaker, one of the important aspects of accountability is the challenge function. That is true for Parliament. Part of our job in opposition is to challenge the government on its planned spending.
One of the problems with Treasury Board vote 40 is that when departmental officials are called before committees to answer questions about what they plan to do with the money, in a number of cases they tell us flat out that they have not planned what to do with the money. They have a basic idea, high level, but as to how they will deliver on that high level, the work will not be done until the money is approved.
That makes it hard for Parliament to do its job of holding the government to account when the government itself says that it does not have any plans for which we can hold it to account. Is that a model of accountability that the President of the Treasury Board would accept?
If department officials went to Treasury Board, asked for funds, told officials not to worry because they would post online monthly reports with respect to what they did with the funds, and they could be held to account after the fact, does the minister think that is an acceptable model for accountability in Treasury Board?
View Daniel Blaikie Profile
View Daniel Blaikie Profile
2018-06-14 18:06 [p.21009]
Mr. Speaker, I thank my colleague for his speech.
When it comes to managing public funds, Canadians must be able to trust the members of the government, but we also need to have processes in place that are so transparent that Canadians and parliamentarians are left with no doubt that funds are being managed appropriately.
One of the problems with vote 40 for the Treasury Board Secretariat is that the government does not want to provide any information until after the funds have been spent.
Is it right to approve and allow spending without providing any information about it, or is is not important to have that information before approving it?
View Daniel Blaikie Profile
View Daniel Blaikie Profile
2018-06-14 18:20 [p.21011]
Mr. Speaker, I thank my hon. colleague for having put some of the remarks of Kevin Page from a recent Hill Times article on the record. I think he has a lot of credibility. He was cited as an authority by the President of the Treasury Board, and I think his remarks with respect to overturning an important principle of parliamentary accountability are quite true, and I am so glad to have them on the record.
I wonder if the member wanted to elaborate a bit more on what it means to try and hold a government to account, and whether it makes sense, on that notion of accountability, that we could do that if we do not have the information as to how the government is planning to spend the money until after the money is already spent, and what that means in terms of the idea of holding people to account.
View Daniel Blaikie Profile
View Daniel Blaikie Profile
2018-06-14 18:24 [p.21012]
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.
View Daniel Blaikie Profile
View Daniel Blaikie Profile
2018-06-14 18:45 [p.21015]
Mr. Speaker, I would say they spoke like true mandarins. One of the jobs of parliamentarians is to hold the government to account and it does not come as a surprise to me, and I say this without any disrespect to their careers or talent, that people who came up through government would be very trusting of government to look over its own shoulder and police itself. That is not our job in this place and I humbly submit to the member that if that is the job he wants, he is welcome to join the public service. However, in this place, it is our job to keep an eye on the government to make sure it lives up to what it says it is going to do, and we cannot do that if it does not tell us what it is planning to do with the money before we approve the funds. Finding out about it after does not work.
Let us say I am renovating my house. My contractor tells me what it is going to cost for a new kitchen, and I say, okay, and give him the money. If he says he is going to build me a kitchen and when it is done, he will show me the receipts and I will see then how it looks, I am going to say, hold on. I want input. I want to know what kind of flooring he is going to put in. I want to know what kinds of cabinets he is going to put in. I want to know whether it will have a dishwasher. Those are all things that I, as the customer, want to know and have a right to ask. I will not approve the cost for a kitchen renovation and find out it looks nothing like what I thought I was signing up for. That is the model of this budget implementation vote and it does not make sense from the point of view of financial accountability.
View Daniel Blaikie Profile
View Daniel Blaikie Profile
2018-06-14 18:48 [p.21015]
Mr. Speaker, I thank my colleague for raising the issue of departmental plans. This spending was not appearing in departmental plans. It undermined the study of the estimates process and was not in keeping with the procedure and practice of this place. I felt this was so serious that I raised a point of order to that effect. The Speaker ruled and I will not comment on his ruling. However, it is an important issue. Departmental plans are supposed to be the place we go to understand what government does in its spending and what it plans to do, and to hold it to account.
Departmental plans are part 3 of the estimates. They are a formal document. They are meant to provide, in a contained document, both the funding requests and what government plans to do with the money. Now, by having this central vote, we have all this other information hanging out there that parliamentarians do not see as part of the ordinary process of studying the estimates. Hence we saw a lot of confusion. Things that should have been asked at other committees were not. They were at our committee, OGGO, instead. Then we had the kind of circus of a meeting with 12 to 14 different officials from many departments trying to talk to one committee about it.
Not having this information in the departmental plans, even in the short term, has created a lot of confusion about how to study this and come to an accurate judgment about whether the numbers in the estimates make sense. In the long term, it creates a problem as well by having that information housed outside of the normal departmental plans.
View Daniel Blaikie Profile
View Daniel Blaikie Profile
2018-06-14 18:51 [p.21016]
Mr. Speaker, the member suggested that we should have somewhere between 220 and 240 hours at committee with ministers to examine the estimates, and I wholeheartedly agree with that suggestion.
View Daniel Blaikie Profile
View Daniel Blaikie Profile
2018-06-14 18:53 [p.21016]
Mr. Speaker, I thank my colleague for his question.
This initiative is driven by a deep sense of arrogance. It will not work. An initiative like this only works if we believe that opposition members do not have the right to question a majority government. It only works if we think that the government is competent enough and that its position cannot be called into question because it listened to what people had to say.
That is how the government is justifying spending money before informing Parliament. The Liberals must be really arrogant to think that that is enough and that they can ignore the House procedures that have been in place for 150 years. Canadians do not like that attitude. They want better accountability when the government spends their money.
View Daniel Blaikie Profile
View Daniel Blaikie Profile
2018-06-14 19:16 [p.21019]
Mr. Speaker, I want to return to one of the general themes of tonight's debate, which has to do with the budget implementation vote and what that means for parliamentary accountability for government with respect to its spending.
I offered up a hyperbolic example earlier today, imagining some of the different ways the government might say it is strengthening the Canada Border Services Agency with the $54 million that is in vote 40. I suggested that it would matter to parliamentarians whether the government was deciding to hire more officers to patrol the border, to buy guns, or to build a wall. It is reasonable for parliamentarians to ask that question.
However, a slightly less hyperbolic example that gets at the same thing is that, in these estimates, the Privy Council Office has asked for about $750,000 to support a new federal leaders' election debate process. The consortium that has sometimes done the debates in the past has said that it usually costs about $250,000 to do the debates for an election, so it could do at least three elections worth of debates for $750,000. The government is projecting that it may spend $5 million next year, and we do not know if that money is for consultation, or to set up an office. We do not know what that money is for, and the PCO has said it does not know what it is for, either.
Does the member think it is acceptable for parliamentarians to be approving funding when we have no idea how the government would decide to support the goals it has stated for the funds?
View Daniel Blaikie Profile
View Daniel Blaikie Profile
2018-06-14 21:59 [p.21042]
Mr. Speaker, I thank the member for Edmonton West for his work on this file and for being a kind of fellow soldier in this kind of strange journey we have been on in this new territory of budget implementation votes.
One of the things we heard consistently from the government was that it somehow did not matter whether we got information about how it was spending before or after the money was spent. I wonder if the member can tell us what that means from the point of view of holding someone to account?
View Daniel Blaikie Profile
View Daniel Blaikie Profile
2018-06-13 15:00 [p.20861]
Mr. Speaker, last fall, the Liberals promised to establish visa-free access to Canada for Ukrainians, but yesterday, visiting MPs from Ukraine confirmed that those talks have stalled out.
In light of the situation with Russia, it has become more important than ever to strengthen our ties with Ukraine.
Given that Ukraine already has visa-free access to the EU and that Canada already has a trade agreement with Ukraine, people want to know what exactly it is the Liberals are waiting for. When will the government finally get a deal done to ensure visa-free access for Ukrainians to Canada?
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