I want to start off by expressing my condolences and sadness at the loss of our colleague, Gord Brown, yesterday, and to all parliamentarians, because we are part of a broader parliamentary family, but particularly to our Conservative colleagues. I knew Gord well, and Claudine, and this is a great loss. He was a very good person.
Mr. Chair, I'm pleased to be here with you today. I'm thankful for the invitation to talk about the 2018-19 main estimates.
I have with me Taki Sarantakis, the associate secretary of the Treasury Board; Marcia Santiago, the executive director; Renée LaFontaine, the chief financial officer; and Brian Pagan, who's back with us now. Brian broke his leg a few weeks ago playing hockey, but he's back with us now. We're glad to have you back on the ice, as it were, Brian.
On April 16, I tabled the 2018-19 main estimates. These provide information to support the government's request that Parliament approve $276 billion of spending to deliver programs and services in the fiscal year starting April 1, 2018.
Through these main estimates, the government continues to make important investments in Canadians' priorities: growth, progress, reconciliation and advancement, as part of our plan to grow and strengthen Canada's middle class.
We are also living up to the commitments we made before Parliament, and we are doing so in a way that is open, transparent and accountable.
For the first time in recent history, the main estimates include 100% of the measures announced in the budget for this year. This is a major step forward, and it's been made possible, in part, by changing the tabling date of the main estimates to mid-April, after the budget. As a result, parliamentarians now have a document that is relevant and complete, so that they can better hold government to account on how it spends taxpayer dollars. To do this, we have added a new, centrally managed budget implementation vote, TB vote 40, to the main estimates. Parliamentarians can now trace each and every allocation from this new central vote to a specific line in the budget, table A2.11, and in the main estimates, annex 1. This is a level of transparency not available in the previous estimates that parliamentarians have been debating and voting on for years.
We have heard the argument that the legal constraints placed on the use of funds in the budget implementation vote are not sufficiently binding and that the government could use this vote to fund whatever it wants. That is categorically false.
Let me give you an example of how the budget implementation vote works. Budget 2018 proposes a number of important investments, including $154 million to the Department of Health to address the opioid crisis. These funds are reflected in the 2018-19 main estimates budget implementation vote. Let's just say that over the course of the year, the opioid crisis worsened and the government decided it needed to spend more. If the government wanted to increase funding for this, or for any other budget measure identified in the budget implementation vote, a separate funding decision would be required and Parliament would be asked to provide additional approval. To repeat, using the budget implementation vote to exceed the allocations listed would be an unauthorized use of public funds.
Mr. Chair, I've been very clear on this from the very beginning. The main estimates document itself tabled in Parliament says that the budget implementation vote is “for new measures approved and identified in table A2.11” of the budget. This table is also included as an annex to the main estimates.
As our Auditor General has said, the government is bound by those line-by-line allocations. To quote the Auditor General, “You can't just decide somebody else should get more and somebody else can get less. To me, that's not the authority that [the government has] been given by Parliament.”
The Auditor General is right. That's why I've said repeatedly, on the record, that the use of the budget implementation vote is legally binding to the allocations in that table. Exceeding those allocations through this vote cannot happen without additional parliamentary approval.
I spoke to the PBO earlier this week and we discussed the idea of including allocations in the wording of the vote itself for even more clarity and to provide him and Parliament with even greater assurance. Based on that conversation, I'm confident that this will provide the greater certainty that he's looking for. To provide as much clarity as possible, we will be listing the allocations within the appropriation bill itself when it's tabled this spring.
Another element of the PBO's report was the assertion that the budget implementation vote does not allow sufficient oversight by parliamentarians. In fact, parliamentarians not only still have the opportunity to study and vote on the budget and the estimates and the appropriation bills for the main and supplementary estimates. For the first time, they also have at their disposal a detailed disclosure of the measures to be funded from the central vote in both the budget plan and the main estimates.
In other words, for the first time ever, when MPs are voting on the main estimates they will know, initiative by initiative, where the budget money is going. This is a huge step forward for parliamentary oversight.
Parliamentarians will also be able to see allocations to departments and remaining balances for the line-by-line budget measures in monthly reports online and in the next available estimates. Thanks to these important changes, parliamentarians now have more control over government spending than ever before.
Mr. Chair, as you know, in our system of government the ability of parliamentarians to hold the government to account is of the utmost importance. To that end, we have made a number of important improvements. In addition to changing the timing of the main estimates to mid-April so that the budget items can be included, we have also increased transparency by reporting on frozen allotments.
Beginning with the 2015-16 supplementary estimates (C), we now publish an online annex that provides Parliament with an early indication of the lapses expected for the fiscal year. This improvement, the PBO says, “represents an important increase in fiscal transparency, ensuring that parliamentarians are on a less unequal footing with the Government”.
Beginning with the 2016-17 supplementary estimates (A), we also now provide parliamentarians with a reconciliation of the accrual expense forecast in the budget with the cash expenditure forecast through the estimates process. Again, this development has been cited by the PBO as a positive step forward in transparency and in efforts to align the budget and estimates process.
Moreover, we have reformed annual departmental reports so that parliamentarians can get better information on planned spending, expected outcomes, and actual results. On that note, I would encourage the committee to finalize its review of the pilot project on purpose-based votes to address the difficulty parliamentarians have in connecting the money we vote for with the program it will actually be used for. I firmly believe that strengthening the link between votes and the purpose or desired results of a program will further strengthen parliamentary oversight of government spending.
Mr. Chair, I appreciate the opportunity and the invitation to join your committee today. Through the changes I've discussed this morning, we are improving the clarity, transparency, and accountability of government spending. In so doing, we are empowering parliamentarians to hold the government to account for how its spends tax dollars.
I'm looking forward to the questions and the discussion.
I would like to welcome the minister, as well as our colleagues and friends from the public service.
Obviously, all our thoughts today are with the late Gordon Brown, and especially with Claudine and their two children.
Mr. Chair, we are here today to talk about the main estimates. Given that this is the Treasury Board president's most important responsibility, we are analyzing each expenditure made according to the estimates that are tabled at the House of Commons and voted on.
The main estimates tabled by the Treasury Board president is unique, because it provides for expenditures upwards of $7 billion that cannot be directly identified nor accounted for. I am talking about vote 40. This vote has already been harshly condemned or, to put it in more polite terms, it was not viewed in an entirely positive light by the parliamentary budget officer, who had this to say:
||With the money requested for TB Vote 40, TBS is effectively requesting that Parliament provide funding in advance of this scrutiny.
This obviously goes against our guiding principles as parliamentarians, which state that each expenditure should be authorized by a vote at Parliament. This is not the case here, however. Moreover, allow me to tell you how vote 40 is described. I will read to you exactly what is stated:
||—Authority granted to the Treasury Board to supplement, in support of initiatives announced in the Budget of February 27, 2018, any appropriation for the fiscal year, including to allow for the provision of new grounds or for any increase to the amount of a grant that is listed in any of the Estimates for the fiscal year, as long as the expenditures made possible are not otherwise provided for and are within the legal mandates of the departments or other organizations for which they are made.
Just to let you know that I gave a copy of the English text to the interpreters.
All this to say that that this is gobbledygook. Rather than a run-on sentence, the government could have just used a short phrase to indicate that it will do as it pleases with $7 billion. That is the reality. You are asking for a blank check to the tune of $7 billion without giving any details.
We do understand that there are unexpected events. This is why, historically, the government has always had a contingency fund for those very situations. It sets up a contingency fund of a few hundred million dollars, say a maximum of $750 million, which is fine, but not $7 billion.
Can the Treasury Board president, who brags about being the most transparent president in the history of Canada, explain why he is asking parliamentarians to give him a check for $7 billion to spend as he likes in the fiscal year preceding our elections?
Thank you to the Treasury Board officials and the President of the Treasury Board for being with us this morning.
I think this process needs to be looked at as a non-partisan process. I think the number one rule as a parliamentarian is to oversee government spending, regardless of what party you're in.
Mr. President, I'm sure you would agree, based on your 21 years of experience—as you said, most of it in opposition—that a fundamental role of a parliamentarian and, indeed, the fundamental role of our parliamentary system is oversight of expenditures by the government. I don't think any member sitting around this table would disagree with that premise—at least, I would hope not.
That begs a few questions, of course, as a member of Parliament. In order to provide effective oversight, and efficient oversight, for that matter, I think we need access to as much information as possible in a timely manner. In that sense, I do think that the new sequencing is a vast improvement over the old way of doing things, so to speak.
Now, you mentioned that the new system will bake into it a stronger working relationship with Finance. Can you elaborate a bit on that? I'm saying, okay, that may be true, and in that sense this is sort of a first step.
How do you see this process evolving to get to the outcome we all want, regardless of what party we're from? Parliament needs information in a timely manner to review expenditures of government to make a decision on whether or not to approve those expenditures. Our role is as basic and fundamental as that. I just wonder how you think the sequencing may be a step in the right direction. And if only a step, what else do we need to do to get to that outcome?
First, getting the sequencing right, in and of itself, makes a significant difference. In the weeks just before a budget, the discussions we used to have on main estimates were largely a waste of Parliament's efforts and time, basically rendered irrelevant by the budget a few weeks later. We are now in the position where we can have a more productive discussion on main estimates that contain the budget initiatives.
Over time—and I've been Treasury Board president now for over two years—the working relationship between Treasury Board and Finance is very strong, as it is with individual departments.
The budget submissions and Treasury Board submission process is aligned to an extent that it has not been in the past. I understand that there are people at the Parliamentary Budget Office who may have worked for Treasury Board in the past and they might be surprised at the workings of Treasury Board and Finance and the productive and effective work that is going on today.
As I said earlier, we have great respect for the work of the Parliamentary Budget Officer. In fact, when I spoke to Jean-Denis earlier this week, he was satisfied with the step of actually putting in the items from table A2.11 in the supply bill and I didn't see that as.... It makes it even more plain to the PBO and more plain to Parliament that we are serious about our accountability. Furthermore, as I read that the Auditor General said yesterday, he agreed with the government's assessment that our process as it is now is binding on the government.
We cannot exceed any of those amounts without going back to Parliament and that is a significant step forward. We want to do more. I would hope that parliamentarians of all parties are familiarizing themselves with our new departmental reports that are much more transparent than those that existed in the past. They are also easy to understand and very results-focused. Again, this is important to our government. It's important to me, as a parliamentarian, and I would hope there are certain things on which we should be able to agree. Making the budget estimates process more transparent is one that is good for all parliamentarians, regardless of where you are in the House of Commons.
It's a responsibility that not only opposition members have, but government members or members of the governing party have, to hold government accountable. I'm very pleased with this progress that we've made in a fairly short period. People like Brian and his team have been working on it for a longer time. I believe this is a significant advancement.
Now, Brian or Taki, you may want to add something to that.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
Mr. President, Mr. Askari, of the Parliamentary Budget Officer's office, described the main estimates bill. It would approve funds ”in support of initiatives announced in the budget”. That wording was, I quote:
||“very broad and general wording” and “does not compel them” to spend as described.
||“It gives the flexibility to government, presumably, to allocate the funds differently than...they had indicated in the budget. To us and to Parliamentarians, that reduces the kind of control and scrutiny they could have over these measures.”
That was right from the Parliamentary Budget Officer's personnel.
As a result of this backlash, you're backing down. On behalf of the opposition, I give you credit for that. The government was caught, I think, with its hand in the cookie jar. But, in fairness, the president has listened to the backlash and he has responded today by starting his retreat.
That being said, we cannot, as an opposition, announce support for the decision because we have not had a chance yet to review the exact change that the president has just put on the floor. We will consult with the PBO to ascertain whether he is satisfied now that the President of the Treasury Board has begun this climb down.
We'll put that aside for a moment. I'll just ask about the role of parliamentary committees in reviewing the items contained in the central vote.
For example, in table A2.11, there are funds for the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency. That typically would go to the industry committee. Will you be the one to testify at the industry committee when it reviews and approves the estimates for that sum of money?
Certainly. John Diefenbaker, former Progressive Conservative prime minister, said that the loudest noises sometimes come from the emptiest drums. Mr. Poilievre purposefully used up all the time because he did not want an answer, because the answer would discredit just about everything he said.
The fact is, our legal interpretation—with the accordance of the Auditor General—is that we are bound to the line-by-line items listed in A2.11. That is the legal opinion. We may differ from time to time with the PBO, and I completely differ with them on this one, with respect for their work.
I could read the supply bill line by line to Mr. Poilievre at night before he goes to bed, and it wouldn't be enough. He would still claim that was not too much. My little girls always say, "One more book, one more book."
This committee is an important committee. For vote 40, there's an accountability for Treasury Board on this. I have demonstrated time and time again my openness to meeting with this committee. Mr. Poilievre could work with their industry critic, as an example, and on items like this, work with other shadow—I think they call them shadowy, or shadowy something—ministers. They could work together and find out what the questions or issues would be. In the same way, a cabinet—or a shadowy cabinet—can work together across portfolios to ensure that Mr. Poilievre and others have the right questions. That's how cabinet works. I don't know how their cabinet worked.
I find it a little rich that the Conservative Party, who were the only government in the history—not just of Canada, but in the British Commonwealth—to have been found in contempt of Parliament for not providing Parliament with information, would be on a moral high horse on this issue. I find it gobsmacking.
I have a secret. I like Pierre. He was my critic when I was public works minister a long time ago. Don't tell him, but he's actually a pretty sharp parliamentarian and he's very political, but sometimes he lets that get in the way of just recognizing that something is good. One of the things I like in parliamentarians is where they can hear a good idea from another party, and say, “You know what, that's a good idea. They are doing something with which I agree.” I think that is something Pierre will develop over time, but he's not there yet quite clearly, because this is absolutely, unequivocally, undoubtedly, the most significant step forward in terms of accountability and transparency that has happened in decades. I will continue to move in this direction because I have a love of Parliament and a respect for Parliament and parliamentarians. That explains my affection for Mr. Poilievre, who is actually a pretty good parliamentarian.
Let's be very clear on this one. There is common ground, notwithstanding the banter and noise on some of this stuff. This is good for Parliament. This is good for accountability. This committee that ought to be championing more accountability and transparency, ought to be supportive of these changes because it is better for Parliament. It will mean that all parliamentarians—government and opposition—will have more ability to hold our government and future governments to account.
Sir, you mentioned in your remarks that you're hoping that this a process we can all work well together on, because there is obviously work to do in terms of improving the process. I would say that we've been negotiating on the estimates in various ways and talking about them for the entire life of the Parliament. I do think we made some good progress in terms of good faith work last June when we agreed to a delay in the tabling of main estimates, but when we were talking about that, we were talking about doing that so that there would be more time between the budget and the main estimates for programs to receive Treasury Board approval and to be included in the departmental estimates. At no time up until a week before you tabled the main estimates this year was there ever mention of a central vote.
Then beyond that, we've said that this is actually quite different from what was conceived in the negotiations we had. Today's is a decent conversation but there are only 10 non-government parliamentarians sitting around the table. I've asked for a take-note debate on that. That's a request that you have yet to grant. You've not moved for that debate, which would actually allow all parliamentarians to participate in this conversation.
You've suggested that you're going to take some measures to provide more legal clarity in terms of the authorities granted by parliamentarians under vote 40 by including the schedule in the appropriation bill. When I asked if you would consult with the opposition parties to make sure that the wording is satisfactory, you said you would take it under advisement. So, we don't have a commitment.
You're asking for us to move forward in this process in good faith and yet when we've made requests for you to have the conversation with Parliament as a whole, and when we've asked for you to confer with us before deciding on the language of the bill, the first time you did that, it didn't go well. We weren't satisfied with that wording. The Parliamentary Budget Officer wasn't convinced that the wording was adequate. So now you're taking new measures and we're asking to be consulted so that you're not putting Parliament on the spot and so that we can actually do as you asked, which is to work together in order to have a better process.
I think there are still problems with doing all of this on a central vote. It raises the question as to why government wouldn't just have one central vote for all of the voted authorities and have a comprehensive table in the budget. One of the disadvantages of that is that it's not broken down by department then. It all appears in one vote, and the Treasury Board minister would be responsible for speaking to all government initiatives that Parliament has voting authority for. We're in effect doing that for all the new initiatives within the budget, so there are problems with the idea of a central vote even if the language of the appropriations bill is changed.
I think it's incumbent upon the government to create the opportunity for a meaningful conversation about that in Parliament. It's why I have asked for a take-note debate. I'm mystified as to why a minister who likes to talk about how open to parliamentary dialogue he is would refuse that request. I'm going to ask you one more time, particularly in light of the new information you've announced at committee today, if you will commit to having a take-note debate in the House.
Upon tabling of the main estimates, the relevant votes are referred to the appropriate committees. In this case, the budget implementation vote is a central vote of Treasury Board, so that vote has been referred to OGGO.
Now, that said, committees, when they're studying the estimates, can invite officials from any department and ask any questions they want about the estimates process. Each committee will conclude their deliberations by providing a report to the House. If they don't report, they're deemed to have reported. If there are any comments or suggestions with respect to vote 40, those would come from this committee, from OGGO.
Again, that said, upon introduction of the supply bill, any member can introduce a motion that affects any part of the estimates. Any member can introduce a motion to reduce or to negate an item that is identified in the budget implementation vote, as has been clearly itemized in annex A1.
As an example, using the president's reference to the opioid crisis, if that funding did not meet the will of the House, any member could introduce a motion to strip that item from the vote, and likewise any other item or initiative that is otherwise—
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
Ladies and gentlemen, what a pleasure to see you all again. I have three topics to discuss with you.
First of all, I'd like to talk about the financial aspect of the G7 Summit. Before I do, however, I would like to reassure all those present that our party is of course in favour of the G7 and this summit. What's more, we MPs for the Quebec City region are delighted to be the hosts, but obviously we have certain concerns given the public spending involved.
I would also like to reiterate that we unequivocally support every expenditure that serves to protect our citizens and allow those who wish to protest to do so safely. We do recognize, however that this will mean spending a lot of money.
The baseline budget to host the G7 is approximately $340 million, which is clearly a huge sum of money. We do understand that these are the usual amounts involved when one hosts a G7 Summit. Costs go up every year. At first glance, there aren't any unnecessary expenditures.
I am from Quebec City and I obviously know a lot of people over there. These people know me and talk to me, and they are very worried that the expenses might get out of control, which would be regrettable.
I have a question for the Treasury Board Secretariat representatives. Is there someone within the Secretariat that keeps track of all G7 expenditures, or is it up to each department?
Thank you for the question, Mr. Ayoub.
In the whole, we have made rather good progress to prove our commitment towards transparency and clarity.
The president cited a number of the steps we have taken over the last number of years as part of his mandate to improve reporting and clarity of public finances. It began in the 2016-17 estimates process where we provided a high level of reconciliation to the budget in the supplementary estimates (A). We brought forward a number of the budget initiatives.
In that year, we also introduced for the first time, in the final supplementary estimates of the year, a table that indicated all of the money that had been approved by Treasury Board and by Parliament but was not going to be spent. We call this “lapsed funding”. We were identifying, for the benefit of parliamentarians, the money you had approved but that would not be available for spending by departments. Again, the PBO cited that as a very important step forward in putting the legislature on a level footing with the executive.
We have continued, because of the changes in the standing order, to bring a much-needed coherence to the way in which spending information is presented to Parliament. We had the budget this year in February that laid out the objectives of the government. In that budget, for the first time, there was a detailed table that itemized, by department, by initiative, and by amount, exactly what was going to be spent to support the government's priorities. The expenditure plan that is included in these main estimates reflects that budget. We have brought a level of coherence between the two documents that simply never existed before.
I'm very comfortable that we have begun a process that shows a commitment to alignment with the budget and to transparency for Parliament, with a great level of detail, and that there is a way forward to achieve even greater coordination, clarity, and transparency in terms of what we're doing.
I can indeed confirm that change is very difficult, especially in this context. You are right; in our work, we aim to make the main estimates more transparent and clear, and then align them with the federal budget.
As to the next steps, you may remember that the minister suggested a reform program in the fall of 2016. He set deadlines, and we have been making good progress in aligning ourselves with the budget. We have accomplished this objective.
Then comes the question of parliamentary oversight. Currently, this oversight is done through votes on operating expenses, grants and contributions and capital expenditures. The Treasury Board president has proposed other models for program objectives. This is an interesting avenue for us.
Lastly, as to performance and the need for more detailed reports to be submitted to Parliament, the president has mentioned the government of Canada's Infobase, a tool that provides any necessary information on expenditures.
I do take the point that the description in A2.11 is a headline, and that underneath that there's a great deal of detail. We will find that detail in, for example, the annex to the estimates that indicates the approvals already provided by Treasury Board. There's a description of these measures using the same title, the same headline, that you see there.
The other point—and you're quite right—is that some of these headlines or titles are repeated in different departments. That is by design in the budget, because the intention is to allocate certain sums of money to each department, but in some cases we're allocating money to these various departments for the same initiative. We call that “horizontal initiatives”.
The earlier question from Mr. Deltell is an example. Security for the G7 is an exercise that is going to involve the RCMP, the Canada Border Services Agency, Public Health, and Citizenship and Immigration. Where there are initiatives such as this that are going to a number of different departments, you will see the same title in that annex. That is for maximum transparency.
Another example is the opioid crisis. Again, the president cited that. He was referring to $154 million going to Health Canada, but in fact there will also be money for this initiative in the budget table for the CBSA, Public Health, and Stats Canada, because they will be working together as part of this initiative.
The table is very comprehensive. Again, it identifies by department, by initiative, and by dollar what they'll be provided with. In some cases, that includes some repetition.
Voices: Oh, oh!
It's a very important question, but it's an exceedingly complicated one because of the range of different programs and the different timetables they are on.
Your point about line by line is an important starting point. Parliament controls spending by aggregating a whole bunch of initiatives into a vote, so we do not itemize all the different spending of departments by program or by project. It is aggregated, and part of the reason the vote wording is so obtuse is to account for all the different complexities of these programs.
Underneath that, there is a great deal of control by Finance and by Treasury Board for each program and project. They're evaluated. They're reviewed. There are some that sunset, because they were designed to sunset.
There are some that lapse money; they couldn't come to an agreement with a partner or a stakeholder or another jurisdiction, and then a decision is made by Finance. They ask, what do we want to do? Do we want to move that money into a new year and pursue the initiative? We then say that the money lapses, and when it is brought forward into a different year, it's re-profiled funding. That is presented to Parliament. If we decide to go forward with an initiative, it is included in the department's main estimates, or in subsequent supplementary estimates.
To all of our witnesses, once again, thank you for being here, and for your candour and your answers.
There are undoubtedly going to be other questions as a result of your presentation and the minister's presentation. I would assume, Mr. Pagan, that if committee members have further questions of you and your officials, you would welcome them and you would respond in kind in writing to our clerk.
Similarly, if you have additional information that has not been discussed today but you think would be of benefit to our committee when studying the estimates process, I would encourage you, again, to send those suggestions to our clerk.
Colleagues, we are suspended now for about two minutes. We'll come back for a very quick piece of committee business. We'll go in camera, and I'd ask that the room be cleared, except for those individuals who are authorized to be here.
[Proceedings continue in camera]