It being 11 a.m., I'll convene the meeting and call it to order.
Colleagues, I have a couple of housekeeping notes. This meeting is in public and it is televised, first of all. Second, as you can see from our witnesses assembled at the table, a number of department officials will be with us today. Because of the sheer number of witnesses we have, we will be forgoing our usual opening statements and going into questions immediately to give all of you more time to ask questions of the officials before you.
Treasury Board and their officials will be with us for the full two hours. We will have one-hour panels initially, followed by a second panel starting at approximately noon. Today we have representatives, in our first panel, besides the Treasury Board, from the Department of Finance, Department of Industry, Department of Natural Resources, Department of Transport, and the National Research Council of Canada. ¸
With that brief introduction, we will now begin with our seven-minute round of questions.
Madam Ratansi, the floor is yours.
Thank you, Madam Ratansi.
As you mentioned in your question, vote 40 is a very important step towards the 's agenda for improved transparency in the reporting of estimates requirements and his ongoing effort to ensure maximum alignment between the budget that is tabled by the Department of Finance and the estimates that are prepared by the Treasury Board Secretariat to inform Parliament of the government's requirements for the year ahead.
In the main estimates for 2018-19, we've taken a very important step forward, by achieving that clarity between the budget and the estimates. The budget that was tabled in February identified the government's intention to seek authorities to spend just over $7 billion on a range of initiatives for departments and agencies across government. In years past, Parliament would have been left waiting for the estimates authority. There was no line of sight as to whether those requirements were going to be brought forward in the first supplementary estimates of the year, the last supplementary estimates of the year, or even in estimates in the year forward.
This year, for the first time, we have taken the clarity of the budget that outlines the items by department, by initiative, and by amount and we have replicated that in the estimates, so that parliamentarians can see very clearly what the government intends to do for the year ahead. This is a way for parliamentarians to hold the government to account for the requirements to be sought by departments. There is nothing nefarious here. It is 100% transparent between the budget and the estimates document.
In the event that items are not brought forward by departments for approval, as the has made clear, those funds would remain in the vote. They cannot be used for any other purpose. We are bound by the annex list in the estimates, such that we can only allocate funding that has been specifically identified in the estimates document by department, by initiative, and by amount.
Over the last couple of years, again, as part of our effort to improve transparency to Parliament, we have taken the opportunity, with the last supplementary estimates of the year, to highlight to Parliament those amounts that have previously been approved and are not going to be accessed by departments and we have frozen those amounts. We have made them unavailable to departments. That same principle will be applied this year for TB vote 40. Should funds not be allocated, then they will be identified to parliamentarians as amounts frozen at the year end. They will lapse in the fiscal framework, and should that funding be required in subsequent fiscal years, then those will be identified in future year estimates documents.
To sum up, vote 40 is an important step forward in helping parliamentarians understand the connection between the budget and the estimates. There is no light between the amounts in the initiatives that are identified in the budget and the amounts in the initiatives that are identified in the estimates. In this way, we have achieved alignment with the budget. We have provided Parliament with additional information, by which they can hold the government to account, and they can regularly check in with departments and with the Treasury Board Secretariat to ask questions about the pace of implementation of these budget priorities.
We explain in a fair bit of detail how the central vote would work, what it would look like, and how departments would access funding for the budget initiatives if the item was included in the central vote.
For the items that had already been approved, no further action was required by departments, so everything that we're talking about today is items that have already been approved by Treasury Board, and that money will be allocated upon release of supply.
For everything else—in response to Mr. McCauley's question—these are items that are under development by departments, so they are actively working now on Treasury Board submissions that define the program terms and conditions, how many FTEs are required, what results they hope to achieve, the indicators they will use, the partners they are working with, and the contracts that will be required. All of this is happening in real time, and we have updated the allocations from the vote—
For the benefit of the committee, I'll remind you of the 's agenda related to estimates reform. He wanted to fix the timing of the processes so that we properly sequenced the documents—a budget and then the estimates. That would also support a reconciliation between the two documents. That was pillar two of his agenda. The third was the idea that we might look at alternate bases of parliamentary control. Instead of votes by inputs, look at purpose-based votes. The fourth was better reporting, primarily through reformatted table documents and such online tools as TBS InfoBase.
In response to your question about how we got here, the report from this committee in 2012 identified many of these issues. The president's agenda responded to that. We fixed the timing. With the estimates now after the budget, we are able to bring all of the budget items into the estimates by department, by initiative, and by amount. That's a very important point. In the past, we would have included a budget item in the supplementary estimates, we would have named the department, we would have named the initiative, and we would have had the amount. We would have tagged that as budget 2015, budget 2016, or whatever.
The amount of information that is provided in the budget implementation vote is completely consistent with the type of information that we previously would have provided in a supplementary estimates document. Instead of waiting to see when that will come, and how the estimates will align with the budget, we believe we have added to the transparency of the process by listing every single item that's in the budget to the same level of detail that would otherwise have been appearing sometime down the road in the supplementary estimates process. There's no waiting. There's no gap between the budget and the estimates. We're identifying what we believe are the maximum authorities required by departments to implement the budget initiatives.
With respect to Mr. McCauley's question about the difference between the allocated and the amounts withheld, there's nothing nefarious here. We've spoken to this point. It speaks to the fact that the budget item is all in. It identifies the full cost of the initiative, whereas the estimates only seek the cash required to implement the initiative. The difference is the amounts covered through other authorities. We have employee benefit plan costs. The EBP costs are withheld because there's a statutory basis for those payments. Likewise, when the department comes forward with their initiative, they are charged accommodation costs so that we can make this cost-neutral for PSPC to provide accommodations and real estate space for departments.
So the amounts withheld reflect the other authorities required to implement the budget initiatives. What we are seeking is the cash, but we're reporting the full cost of the initiative. Again, we believe this enhances the transparency of the process for parliamentarians.
I believe we have done a very good job this year in providing information that enhances transparency, but this is not our idea of an end state. It is a step along the way to continue, and it's a never-ending quest to improve that alignment and transparency.
As the has said, there are jurisdictions out there where they start the planning process earlier. They can do the budget decision and TB decision in parallel, and that's what we aspire to. He's also said that will take a number of years to change the machinery and the processes related to budget development.
I would also point out that, although we have identified other jurisdictions that we would like to emulate, those are not perfect models themselves. Even in Australia and Ontario, they include a number of items in the estimates documents that are yet to be developed or for which subsequent TB approvals are going to be required. In fact, in Australia that number approaches 10% of the estimates. Our budget implementation vote is considerably less than 10% of vote expending.
We feel we have made an important step forward, but it's a step, not the end state.
Thank you, Mr. Chair. I'm going to go straight to Mr. Pagan.
Mr. Pagan, I'm trying to get my head around at the outset when the $7-billion estimate was presented and was presented on A2.11 and it's been itemized. What information do I have available in my position so that I would be able to make a decision on whether this needs my approval or not? I'd like to actually use two examples by referencing the sources and uses document, the one that came on June 5, especially the line item having to do with “Strengthening the Canada Border Services Agency” for $85 million, of which we've now allocated $73 million and withheld $11 million. There's another line item “Building More Rental Housing for Canadian Families”, for which there's a total of $447 million.
There seems to be information available, and I believe this is as the details are provided to the Treasury Board and Treasury Board reviews it and it says it approves. That's where the $73 million comes in. Very little information is available, or the file is in the process of you guys reviewing, and that's why the zero allocation is done. At the outset, what information do I have available, because allocated, it looks like at the outset they're all going to be zero. Tell me what information is available so that you made the decision on $73 million, no decision on zero, and why that information cannot be available earlier when you're actually submitting this document so we could say, yes, we know everything that's happening.
Thank you, Mr. Jowhari.
It's a very important point. It's a fundamental point, and I think it speaks to some of the confusion that exists around what we're presenting, and actually what parliamentarians are approving. With respect, I make this point very carefully.
Parliament does not approve individual initiatives. That is the role of the executive. That's a Treasury Board function. The estimates process exists in order to help parliamentarians hold the government to account for expenditures.
What we have done in TB vote 40 is to itemize every single initiative that the government intends to bring forward as a result of budget 2018, and that the House of Commons has endorsed by endorsing budget 2018 in March. The information available to you facilitates that ability to hold the government to account for these items.
How much has been allocated? For what purpose? How many FTEs are there? What are the results? What are the indicators? These are all legitimate and valid questions that parliamentarians can and should be asking departments as the initiatives are approved and this money is allocated out to departments.
We have before us today $1.2 billion of decisions that have been taken, so parliamentarians can ask my colleagues about the specifics around that initiative—FTEs, results, partners that they're working with, and so on.
For the other items, as we've made clear, these are under development, so we don't have the specific details of FTEs or partners, but we certainly have information about what the government would like to achieve as a result of this investment, and departments can speak to that as well. They can't get into the details of the discussions with Treasury Board at this point, but they can certainly identify in a fair bit of detail what they hope to achieve with the moneys that have been set out in the budget.
That is the principle around vote 40 and why we believe that this actually helps parliamentarians hold the government to account for the authorities to be sought in fiscal year 2018-19.
It is a privilege and an honour to be here.
As a former federal public servant, I can tell you that when the President of the Treasury Board announced the new approach, many people welcomed it. It will provide much greater predictability for the initiatives submitted for approval and included in the budget.
Knowing at the start of April that the funds would be available to carry out these initiatives was great news. I sincerely applaud this change. It allows us to bring these initiatives forward. They are important initiatives in various regions of Canada.
I would like the Treasury Board officials to explain something about the table provided by the Library of Parliament, table 2. Of the $7 billion, the remaining funds total about $5.2 billion.
Can you tell me the process for accessing those funds?
We know that funds were already allocated on April 16 and June 5, and I assume further funds will be allocated. Please explain the process for accessing the remaining funds.
Thank you for your question, Mr. Massé.
The work we do with the departments to implement the projects announced in Budget 2018 is essential. Our system has two stages.
First, in the budget, the government set out priorities for the coming year.
Second, at Treasury Board, we work closely with the departments to develop ways to implement the programs in order to resolve issues relating to staff, jobs, results, and indicators. We have to make sure the programs unfold properly. In some cases, it can take weeks, months or even years to finalize the terms of the projects.
It's a question, Mr. Massé, that varies by initiative and by department. There can be initiatives that are inherently complex because they're dealing with other jurisdictions, whether it's aboriginals, provinces, or even other governments. It is important that the department responsible for the initiative work closely with its partners to identify the results to be achieved, and the resources to be utilized in pursuit of those resources, so that when they bring an item to Treasury Board, they can answer all of our questions about how many FTEs and where the initiative will be directed from: is it Ottawa or the regions?
It takes time to finalize all these matters. The department cannot submit the project to Treasury Board until all the elements have been decided upon.
I want to ask you, Mr. Scott-Douglas, from the National Research Council, about an allocation in the update from June for just about $53 million for the National Research Council, under the rubric, “Convert Sunsetting Funding into Permanent Funding”.
I know that's not mentioned as an item in the departmental plan, although there is some time spent in the departmental plan explaining that a number of apparent funding reductions are the result of programs sunsetting.
I'm wondering if the goal of this money is to prevent that lag of not knowing what's going to be approved or not approved. How does having the money meant to stop the sunsetting, in a central vote that lapses at the end of the year and which would then have to be reapproved next year as well, address the issue of sunsetting for the National Research Council?
We will reconvene the meeting now.
Colleagues, I have some information for all of you. We will have to deal with the main estimates for the Treasury Board Secretariat at the conclusion of this meeting, so I'll be suspending this meeting probably around 12:50. We can discuss vote 40 at that time.
In the interim, we will have a group of witnesses who are with us again today. To reiterate, we have representatives from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the Department of the Environment, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development, the Department of Indigenous Services Canada, and the Office of the Commissioner for Federal Judicial Affairs.
As always, we have Mr. Pagan and his officials with us as well.
Once again, we'll continue with our round of questioning, starting with a seven-minute round.
Mr. Peterson, you are first up.
It was entertaining to hear Mr. Peterson continue to defend the fiscal governance model of the Government of Ontario less than a week after that government was completely run out of—not quite completely, but down to seven seats, I guess. The point, I think, is that fiscal governance and overall fiscal health of a polity are indeed interconnected.
We had testimony in previous panels about how items that had gone through the Treasury Board Secretariat process since the table was prepared for us have exceeded the amounts in the table that we haven't even voted on yet. I would submit that governance models do count, and they do affect overall fiscal health.
I'll go to the departments we have here. We heard again on May 22 that most vote 40 items had not gone through the Treasury Board submission, but we have been told that they are continuing to work through and that this is an ongoing process, so now we have a variety of departments here, and I'd like to ask some of the individuals from different departments which of their items have been through the Treasury Board process now.
I'll start with Ms. Jordan and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
Of your $22.5 million under vote 40, how much of that has been vetted through Treasury Board now?
I want to start by reassuring Mr. Drouin that one of the reasons this hasn't come up in Ontario is that, notwithstanding the fact that it's pointed to as an example of what the government here would like to do, there is no central budget implementation vote in Ontario. If you'd like to refer to the various votes that are posted online, I'd be happy to share that URL. As much as they do coordinate between Finance and their Treasury Board, they didn't opt for one kind of omnibus vote as the way to bring about that alignment.
It seems to me—and you let me know if you think I'm being unfair, Mr. Pagan—that the job of Treasury Board is to provide accountability, and they do that through their challenge function. When departments come to them and say, “Hey, this is more or less what we want to do and this is how we plan to do it”, Treasury Board pushes back, asks if they've thought about this or about that, says that there might be a better way, and asks if they have tried this or thought about that.... That's where the accountability lies. Is that a pretty fair assessment of how Treasury Board works?
Departments likely perform better, I think, as a result of that challenge, right? It helps them. It's important to their internal process, and it provides a meaningful accountability after the fact, because they demonstrate what they're committed to.
Now, when it comes to Parliament, you said that Parliament should be satisfied with getting information about how departments spend money after the fact and that it doesn't inhibit the accountability function of Parliament in any way. What if departments were to come to Treasury Board and say that it should approve the money up front, and they'll go away, prepare a plan, and let them know how they spent the money after they've spent it, but not to worry, they'll give lots of detail...?
Do you think Treasury Board could do its accountability function if it only got information retrospectively or do you think it's part and parcel of the notion of accountability that some of that work be done beforehand, and that the person meant to hold someone accountable for funding has an obligation to ask questions and evaluate the answers—which presumes the answers exist—prior to granting that approval?
It is always interesting to see how the opposition reacts to the way a government operates, especially in the presence of officials who are doing exactly what a government is supposed to do and are operating the way a government is supposed to operate.
A government must be accountable. So you have to ask questions about specific topics and not about processes that you are not happy with. In any case, regardless of how the government goes about it, you would not be happy, whether you are from the department or the opposition.
Since I want to make the most of my seven minutes, I will ask about how the funds are spent.
My question is for Mr. Thoppil, from Indigenous Services Canada.
I would like some information about the 1 billion dollars indicated in Budget 2018. For Indigenous Services Canada, $91 million was allocated on April 16, 2018, and $109 million was just allocated in June 2018. That leaves $832 million for that department.
How much will be allocated to give members of the first nations access to drinking water? Drinking water is a given in the big cities and developed areas, but that is not the case everywhere in Canada. The and the government have made a clear and specific commitment to Canadians to restore this service to the first nations.
I would like more information about what has been done in this regard.
It is true that the policy on drinking water is very important to the government.
Roughly $100 million will be invested in the plan to eliminate the problem of communities that do not have long-term access to drinking water.
Currently, as of early May, there are 75 or 76 communities across the country with long-term drinking water boil advisories, and the intention of the government is to eliminate those 76 within a few years. There is a challenge, because there are a number of communities that are hovering into moving into long-term status due to long-term underfunding of water management on reserve.
While the government has essentially eliminated about 62 long-term boil advisories since November 2015, at the same time there are another 30 that have actually achieved that status. The money that is allocated in budget 2018, in addition to those monies that have been provided through the previous budgets, is essentially to ensure that not only are the 76 eliminated but that the number of communities that are on the cusp of moving into long-term are prevented from doing so.
I said earlier that I think it is important to be able to coordinate the measures set out in the budget to ensure that these projects can proceed very quickly, rather than waiting for the supplementary estimates to be approved. Otherwise, initiatives can be delayed for up to eight, nine or 10 months.
I asked Mr. Pagan a question earlier and I would like him to answer, but first I have a question for Mr. Morel, from Fisheries and Oceans.
Mr. Morel, in the report that was tabled, I see that $150 million is allocated to small craft harbours. This is an important initiative.
I will play politics, and I am happy to do so. For about 10 years, our small craft harbours were neglected. We have several of them in the Lower St. Lawrence and the Gaspé.
As a result of this neglect, some ports have deteriorated. It was a struggle and a lot of money had to be invested. I am thinking in particular of the dock in Carleton-sur-Mer. We have finally settled this matter. The harbour will be rebuilt. This is a very important initiative. When we talked to the , we told him how important this was and that many harbours still have to be renewed. From my understanding, this $150 million is the first chunk of the $250 million that will be allocated to modernize small craft harbours.
As to the process that Mr. Pagan described, I also understand that you have had access to these funds since the start of April—if you could confirm that—to invest in the modernization of the small craft harbours in question.
Is that correct?
There are more than 1,000 small craft harbours in Canada. About 700 of them serve the fishing industry, and the remaining 300 are subject to divestiture. The department is looking for partners to whom it can transfer the ports in the short term. The $150 million this year and the $100 million next year will support the restoration of these harbours or their divestiture.
On the other hand, while the funding has been allocated, there are certain conditions attached to it. In particular, we have to provide a list of projects. Since the budget was passed, the staff at small craft harbours have been planning in accordance with priorities, their needs related to harbour quality, and the needs of the fishing industry to support its activities.
So there is no money for work or contracts submitted since the budget. We are waiting for confirmation of the list of projects and for information about Treasury Board's process.
Thank you for that question.
As you know, there are three main indigenous groups in this country, which are the first nations, the Inuit, and the Métis. Relative to non-indigenous Canadians, they all have a socio-economic gap. It's relative among the three. Based on the department's own research, the Métis are relatively better, as compared to the other two, but the government's commitment is to address the socio-economic gap for all indigenous communities.
You are correct that this is the first budget with a significant investment in the Métis space and it is to deal with a couple of main planks. Housing is where the most significant amount of money is to go. There is also money for post-secondary education. That is all part of a frame that is also going on between the Government of Canada and various Métis nations, in terms of advancing their agenda to move into a self-government status for their self-determination aspirations. This investment will help in those discussions to eventually give them the path that they are seeking, which is self-determination.
To our witnesses, thank you all for being here today. You've been very informative and very helpful.
We will suspend, colleagues, for just a couple of moments and then we have some business to do. We will remain in public.
The Chair: We are remaining in public, but colleagues, we do have a little bit of business to do today, unfinished business, and that's dealing with reporting back on the main estimates. You may know that all other votes were deemed reported back on June 10, the deadline, but the main estimates for the Treasury Board Secretariat have to be done today.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
For ease of reference, this is amendment 169. I move:
|| That Vote 40 under the TREASURY BOARD SECRETARIAT in the amount of $7,040,392,000, as it appears on page II-260 of the Main Estimates 2018-19, be reduced by $745,000, as it appears on page A1–7 of the Main Estimates 2018-19 for A New Process for Federal Election Leaders’ Debates under Privy Council Office, in addition to any reductions previously agreed upon.
Of course, Mr. Chair, you'll know that the $7,040,392,000 comes from the total amount of Treasury Board vote 40, and the reduction amount comes from the allocation under the Privy Council Office for a new process for federal election leaders debates. That reference is just to help provide clarity, because normally, you don't necessarily have all of the different moving parts that you have under a vote. This is just to provide clarity as to where that particular reduction number comes from, particularly in light of the fact that we'll be considering a number, a great number, over 200, in fact, potential reductions to Treasury Board vote 40.
I thought that this was an important one to start with. We heard from the Privy Council Office that they weren't prepared to answer any questions about this particular proposed allocation under vote 40 because they had no plan for the money. I think members will know, and I think I've been as clear as one can be, that I don't think it's appropriate to grant authority for spending when the government has no plan for what it intends to do with the money. A high-level tale of what they're intending is nice, but it's not what I think people expect when they send us here to provide some more rigorous accountability.
It could be an important initiative, and the point isn't that the idea of reforming the process for federal election leaders debates is a bad idea, or that it shouldn't be done. The point is that there's a number here, $750,000, and before we say that this is an appropriate amount to dedicate to that particular initiative, I think we owe it to Canadians to ensure that the government has a sense of how it's going to spend it, because there are a number of different ways that you could support a new process for federal election leaders' debates.
I believe I was just at the point in my remarks where I was going to share with the committee some of the possible ways in which one might go about spending $750,000 to support a new process for a federal election leaders debate.
One of the things that this government has done often and is a fan of and in principle is a very good thing is consultation. Of course, there are a number of different ways, even just under the rubric of consultation, that one could choose to consult Canadians on a new process for federal election leaders debates. Just think of social media, Mr. Chair. I'm sure you've seen a number of times in this Parliament already that the government has framed itself as a proponent of social media consultation and has done a number of consultations on social media. Therefore, one can imagine that if what's conceived or if the ultimate plan for the consultation for this particular initiative is a Twitter consultation, which we have seen before, then as an MP, I think I have not just every right, but, frankly, a duty, to ask why it is we would have a $750,000 budget for a Twitter consultation. The minister has a number of staff already. There's staff in the PCO. Presumably, some of those staff are adept at Twitter or social media, and they wouldn't have to bring in a consultant for $750,000 in order to implement a Twitter consultation.
That's one way they could do it. Even within that, I think at that point the amount of money that we're talking about would be obscene. Even within the very idea of a Twitter consultation, Mr. Chair, I think you'd find there might be some controversy as to how exactly you evaluate the feedback you're getting from Canadians. Is it re-tweets? Is it likes? Are 240 characters really sufficient in order to get a good sense of where Canadians are with respect to something that is quite important?
Of course, we know from the last election there was some controversy about the way in which federal leadership debates unfolded. It had to do with whether or not some leaders, in the eyes of the public and their political opponents, were accepting enough invitations to participate in debates.
Now, I'm not saying that this is a good idea, but one way that one can imagine the government might end up deciding that they want to support this process is by legislative changes that would then require party leaders to attend a minimum number of debates which are organized in a certain fashion. We'll come to that I'm sure over the course of this debate. Say that was the upshot—
Thank you very much for that clarification, Mr. Chair. That's helpful.
If it were the case that the mechanism the government decided to use in order to support a more robust leadership debate process in federal elections was legislative, then again I think we're at the point where we could ask why the government needs an additional $750,000 to support a legislative process that's already well supported within the existing resources. Arguably, due to the relatively small quantity of legislation this Parliament has seen compared to others, the legislative branch might actually be over-resourced for this particular government. Certainly, if it's a legislative fix, I think we can say that a $750,000 supplement to the existing resources is probably not appropriate. That's part of the crux of the matter of what we've been trying to get at with respect to this initiative, but also many other initiatives, to the extent to which parliamentarians can make a judgment about the amount that's appropriate for a particular item in the absence of having departments appear and be able to answer those questions. It's not that they're not answering those questions because they don't want to, or they're being deliberately evasive. It's because they can't, in principle, answer questions about programs that they haven't developed yet. That's been a recurring theme.
Twitter consultations, legislative changes.... Even under the rubric of social media consultation, I think many members around the table will know Twitter is not the only way to consult Canadians with respect to social media. You might be able to do a slightly more in-depth consultation if you used the medium of Facebook as opposed to Twitter. Facebook Live enables people to interact in real time with the host of the seminar. That would actually be a real back and forth with Canadians. Presumably, of course, if they wanted to do it more on the political side, and do some political branding at the same time, they might have the conduct such a consultation so that she can interact directly, but we've also seen instances where parliamentary—
Thank you very much, Madam Chair.
I was just mentioning that Facebook is another way in which government can consult Canadians on social media. Facebook Live is a particularly interesting tool that I know some members of government have used because it allows for some real-time interaction, with questions and answers and whatnot. The government might consider doing that.
Just to bring it back to the amendment at hand, the question then would be, again, why would you require $750,000 to do a consultation like that? Access to Facebook is free for most uses, including doing something on Facebook Live. That would enable government to be able to consult a cross-section of Canadians quite directly and save on the expensive travel. Of course, sometimes travel is an expense that comes in the course of consultation, whether that's government consultation or, as we know quite well, committee consultation. This committee has travelled before. I recall sitting in, before I was a permanent member of this committee, when the committee was in Winnipeg on the Canada Post issue. Of course, that kind of travel isn't free, but part of the point is that we don't know whether travel is foreseen as an item in the $750,000 being asked for here.
Instagram, of course, is another social media platform. I'll leave it to experts to determine whether or not that's a good consultation tool. I'm more familiar with Twitter and Facebook. It seems to me they're more interactive in the appropriate way with respect to consultation. It's difficult to get a clear sense of what Canadians might want for a federal election debate process simply through images, although some Canadians are pretty adept at creating memes. One can imagine that there might be some insightful and humorous communication by a number of those Canadians through an Instagram consultation. I'll leave it to minds smarter than mine to envision exactly what that might look like.
You might actually need to have some funds in order to develop the concept of an Instagram consultation. I'm not sure of the cost, but surely not $750,000, or at least I hope not; if it did cost that much, I would think that would be far too much to spend on a social media experiment. Canadians shouldn't be required to pay that bill when at some point, I would think, if Instagram consultation does have a promising future, we'll see members of the private sector develop that in order to realize its potential.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
I hope members will feel that I'm being relevant. I thank Mr. Massé for making my point, in part, which is that the problem with the money requested for this particular initiative is that we don't actually know what it's for.
Mr. Rémi Massé: [Inaudible—Editor]
Mr. Daniel Blaikie: Well, no, we didn't, not from the Privy Council Office. I recognize that the member is not a permanent member of this committee. If he were, he would know that when the Privy Council Office appeared to speak to their allocation under vote 40, they said very clearly that they couldn't tell us what the money was for; the program hadn't been developed yet.
Now, that leaves the door pretty wide open. What I'm trying to provide in my remarks is some speculation as to what a possible program looks like that would support a new process for federal election debates. My point was quite relevant to costing. I was trying to suggest that if it ends up being the case...and we don't know, because we actually have no guidance whatsoever from the PCO on what it is they're planning to do with this money. They've been very clear.
Mr. Rémi Massé: [Inaudible—Editor]
Mr. Daniel Blaikie: No, we already asked the PCO. I didn't need to ask these departmental officials.
Mr. Rémi Massé: [Inaudible—Editor]
The Chair: Order.
Mr. Daniel Blaikie: I asked the Privy Council Office.
My point, quite relevant to the cost here, was if it ends up being the case that the Privy Council Office lands on the idea of pioneering a new form of Instagram consultation with Canadians, and they were going to spend $750,000 doing it, that would be a waste of money. I would not vote to support that, because we don't have any assurance from the Privy Council Office that this isn't where they're going to land. In good conscience, I can't approve that money.
That was my point. I think it's quite relevant to the motion, Mr. Chair. I take exception to the idea that I wasn't being relevant. I was talking about what a possible program might look like, and was simply saying that I don't think it's the role of government to be pioneering it.
I was adding to that at the moment I was interrupted. I think if that were a promising avenue for consultation with Canadians, that would likely be developed in the private sector. The government could then benefit from the template established by companies who are consulting their customers within Canada. At that point, the start-up cost of doing an Instagram consultation would be far lower than what it might be now, if that isn't already a thing. That's simply what I was saying, Mr. Chair. I think it's quite pertinent.
All that to say, if we're just talking about consultation, under the rubric of social media consultation alone I think it's pretty clear there are a number of possible options. Probably, under any of those options, $750,000 is simply too large a budget. I don't think that makes sense.
Of course, consulting people on social media isn't the only way to consult Canadians. Even just at the initial program development stage, you see a number of program choices could be made, and I think it matters how much money we approve under that rubric, which option the government chooses to undertake.
Imagine that instead of doing a social media consultation, or in addition to doing a social media consultation because a social media consultation doesn't cost a lot of money, the government decided it wanted to travel across the country into a number of different communities, not just large urban centres, but rural and remote communities as well. It would start to make sense why you would need a large budget, if this is consultation money. At that point, you're looking at booking flights. Again I think it would be of interest to parliamentarians to know if that's a core aspect of what money is being asked for, how many staff government envisions bringing on that trip. Is this a minister and a political aide and two translators and a facilitator? That might be the bare minimum. We might be interested to know at that point whether $750,000 makes sense, or how many communities they expect they could make it into at that price point.
If they envision having a larger team for consultation, then at that point I think it would be pertinent for parliamentarians to ask if that larger team is necessary or not, and to challenge the idea of how many members have to go or not go, as the case may be.
We do that even at the committee level. As somebody who has been around this place for a while on many committees, and I'm sure you have travelled with committees before, you'll know that sometimes arrangements are arrived at between committee members where the entire committee doesn't have to travel. Instead, a reduced complement travels. That's exactly because committees are concerned about costs and the budget. It's not a sky-is-the-limit kind of thing.
A similar principle applies to government consultation. If the government is contemplating a long period of travel, it's important to know how many people they think they're going to take with them, and why they think they need that many people to go. Are they running these consultations in various communities, in community halls, or local schools, or are they renting really fancy hotels and inviting people to a hospitality suite? Those are things that I think committee members might be interested to know.
Contrary to the remarks from some of the Treasury Board officials earlier today, I think parliamentarians have every right to know, and every duty to ask in advance of something like this—an ask for $750,000—whether that is in fact the intention of government or not. One can imagine certain types of consultation. I think we've even heard tell of some more exclusive consultations that government sometimes does, even this government recently, where they're invitation only.
It's one thing to go out across the country and to speak with Canadians in community clubs and schools in their own community and to have it be open to the public so that anybody who has an opinion on the appropriateness of a particular form or style of federal leaders debate can weigh in. It's quite another thing to say we're going to rent out some ritzy hotel rooms in Vancouver, Montreal, and Toronto, and we're going to invite some powerful media magnates. We're going to wine and dine them on champagne and caviar, and we're going to hear what they think. That, too, would be a consultation.
I'm not saying that's what this government would do. I'm saying that's what some government might do, and I think they would be wrong to do it. I think Canadians would be upset if they found out that $750,000 paid for three consultations where the list was closed to just some powerful people by invitation.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
I am glad to clarify that the references to champagne and caviar didn't come out of nowhere. I'm talking about a particular way that one might choose to consult Canadians. One way that has sometimes happened is that the government embarks on an invitation-only consultation. Now I am repeating myself, but only for the benefit of Mr. Massé, who I think didn't appreciate initially how these remarks tied to the motion. I'm concerned to do that for him. If you'll give me some leeway to be somewhat repetitive, it's only for the benefit of Mr. Massé.
Of course, that is one way that you can consult. It's invitation only. Then the question is, what is the set-up for this invitation-only thing? If you had a government that was concerned to hobnob with the rich and powerful, you can imagine that if they were given free rein over a budget of $750,000 and had little scruple, they might do something like order caviar and champagne to that hotel room for that particular consultation in order to make an impression that had very little to do with the substance of the matter, which is a new process for federal election leaders debates. That would be something that parliamentarians of all stripes around this table would be concerned about. It's certainly something that they ought to be concerned about. That is how the reference to champagne and caviar relates directly to this particular motion, and has to do with the potential uses of this budget, and how you consult.
Another way to do consultation for government.... I mean, there's no magic to government consultation. It's about getting out and talking to people. Of course, the government of the day is supported by a political party. In fact, this government, as all majority governments are, is supported in the House by a political party with the most number of current MPs. Another form that consultation could take, which wouldn't cost any money and therefore would not require a budget—certainly not $750,000—would be for those MPs to go out and to door-knock in their communities. They could talk to Canadians on their doorsteps about what they think worked or didn't work about the last federal election leaders debate. They could try to get some good ideas from them, in terms of how that process should be improved, and then pass that information back up to the appropriate minister, or to cabinet, or whatever process they design to get that feedback. That would be another low-cost form of consultation.
The point of the amendment is to highlight the fact that we don't actually have good information on what the government intends to do with this money, and that there are many different ways the government could be sufficiently faithful to the high-level goal. They might be able to say, “We're honouring what we said we'd do with this money,” but actually end up with a result that's very far removed from what anyone would have expected they would actually do with that money. Of course, that's why we have a process where we call departmental officials to committee and we get to ask those questions, so that we can get a sense....
Earlier, I used the analogy of the Canada Border Services Agency. It's all well and good to say that we're going to dedicate money to supporting the CBSA and making Canada's border secure, but it's really not enough information to be able to approve that funding, because it matters whether you're simply hiring more staff, buying tanks, or building a wall. Those are all different ways of honouring that high-level commitment. They're not all equal. They're certainly not equal, not from a cost perspective, not from a moral perspective, and not from a political perspective, but they are all options.
It matters to discern beneath the general high-level goal what the main-line ways of using that funding are in order to accomplish that goal. When we had the Privy Council Office here before us, they were very clear that they had not yet made that determination. We left with as much information as we had when we came in the door and we were told not to expect any more information.
I have outlined how I think it is that if you were to just conceive of this at this moment—because we're in the year before the election—as a consultative budget to go out and talk to Canadians, you could have a number of different options with a number of different cost implications. Beyond consultation, when we move to action, it's not clear whether this line item is intended for consultation or intended for action, or intended for some mix of both.
There are allusions in the budget to more money next year for this same initiative, so we don't know if this is the consultation year and next year is the action year. It would certainly be strange if this year were the action year and next year were the consultation year, but I've come to learn from this government that one should not set the bar too high in terms of expectations and that anything can happen.
To remind committee members of where we were at before that discussion, I'll just say that what I've been trying to do is to outline that even if this were just a consultation budget, Mr. Chair, there are a lot of open questions as to how the government might go about it, but in fact we don't know if this budget is just for consultation or whether it's also for action. We don't know if the action is planned for year one or year two. I was saying that I think it makes sense, obviously, to have the consultation before the action, but you never know.
The point is, we didn't get an answer. Even an answer as simple and general as they plan to consult and then act was not given by the Privy Council Office when they were here at committee. They simply said, “We don't know what we're going to do with that money.” We couldn't even get that much of an answer.
If people think that's silly, I would put it to the government: why was it that they couldn't provide at least that much of a basic answer? The fact that they were so ill prepared that they couldn't just say that they were going to do some consultation before they move ahead, and that at least part of this year's budget is going to be to support that consultation, I think shows just how ill prepared many of these government departments are to plan properly for the money they're asking to receive.
We heard earlier from a Treasury Board official, as you'll recall, Mr. Chair, on this same point, which ties directly to the amendment at hand, that it wasn't until after the budget was tabled that departments got a call letting them know about the Treasury Board central vote for budget implementation.
Here you have a brand spanking new pioneering way of providing funding to departments for all their new budget initiatives, and they didn't even know until after the budget was tabled that this was coming down the line. You would think that presumably they were working on some of what they were hoping to have in the budget, but of course approval for the budget is a policy approval. That's one thing. They wouldn't have done the kind of rigorous costing that goes into getting a Treasury Board approval, and then you wonder where the number comes from.
In response to some questioning by Mr. McCauley, I know that departments have sometimes said that they don't actually quite know where that number came from or how they arrived at that number. You would think that if they did some basic budgeting they would at least be able to tell you whether they intended to consult in year one and act in year two or something, but we got nothing.
If we set aside the question of consultation for just a moment and move to action, then there are all sorts of possibilities in terms of how the government might act to support a new process for federal election leaders' debates. I feel that I should say at the outset that I'm going to suggest some possible actions. I'm not saying they're good or bad, or that I support them or don't support them. All I'm trying to do at this point is lay out some of the possibilities. Because we've been given no direction by government officials in terms of where they might go or how they might act on this, it's incumbent upon us to consider all of the possibilities. I won't pretend to provide an exhaustive list, but I hope to provide as exhaustive an account as possible as to what some of the various methods for acting on this might be.
I alluded earlier to the idea that it might involve some legislative work. I would say even at the outset that if it does involve some legislative work, then I think we run up against some important principles of the House of Commons that call into question whether it's even appropriate for the government to be asking for the appropriation of funds at this time. It is a well established principle around here that if government is going to be asking to appropriate funds, it has to do that within its existing statutory and legal authorities. In fact, if there's doubt as to that, we heard earlier about an initiative that was presented under vote 40, one having to do with matrimonial real property, and was initially listed under the wrong department. It was wrong because that department doesn't have the legal and statutory authority to spend in that area.
As a result of government making a funding request outside of the legal and statutory authorities of a particular department, Treasury Board itself has seen fit to remove that particular allocation and reallocate it—well, not reallocate it, because it can't within the vote 40 structure, and it said that it won't. It will go to the supplementary estimates. It's important that any money that's being asked for under vote 40 be consistent with the statutory and legal authorities of departments already granted.
I would note the fact that the particular initiative will come in the supplementary estimates, and it doesn't seem to have caused any sense of panic among members of the government, or members of the governing party at this committee. They understand full well that not going ahead with a funding decision in vote 40 doesn't mean the government can't appropriate the funds. It just means it has to do it through the normal process. This isn't about stopping any particular government initiative; it's about holding the government to account to seek funds in the appropriate way that respects the accountability and oversight role of Parliament. We saw some evidence that at least with respect to certain items, government does see that.
Another example of that is found in the departmental plan for Veterans Affairs, where the government is proposing a program for veterans' pensions. You'll notice, Mr. Chair—and I'm sure you have already—that under vote 40 there isn't any new money assigned for that program, even though it was mentioned in the budget, and even though it's a substantial line item in terms of cost. That's explained in the departmental plan in a footnote to a table where the projected costs of that new program are outlined. The footnote tells us that the government is not requesting that funding at the moment, because it doesn't have the existing statutory and legal authority to do it, because there are legislative changes required to the legislation that structures the pension program, and it would be inappropriate for the government to seek those funds before it makes the changes to the legislation.
I have likewise argued in other places, and I think this is one of the problems with vote 40, that vote 40 itself doesn't seem to fall under any existing legal or statutory authority of Treasury Board, which is why I have asked the Speaker to rule vote 40 out of order in the House. The Speaker has yet to rule on that point. I'll be interested to see what the Speaker has to say with respect to that, because I do think that is a clear-cut case of government requesting funding in a way that defies the existing statutory and legal authority.
My concern is that if the Privy Council Office requires legislative amendments in order to implement this new process for federal election leaders debates, yet to be determined, and if this funding ends up being funding for anything that's not currently possible, but is only possible after Parliament passes some new legislation, or amends existing legislation in order to set it up, then the government and Parliament will have violated that important principle, which is that it have the properly constituted legal and statutory authority prior to requesting funding, and at this point we don't know.
So, I brought it back, Mr. Chair. You're surprised, but I—
That is an important principle around here. I think it makes sense. The reason that principle makes sense is that it requires of the government that they not anticipate the will of Parliament. Parliament hasn't decided anything until it has decided something. It's not for government to seek funds on a conditional basis.
That is to say, if such and such a law passes, then we'll already have the money ready to go. That would be to prejudge the outcome of a vote in Parliament. Frankly, I think it's disrespectful to members of the governing party who aren't in cabinet because it essentially expects that they're going to do whatever they're told to do and that there won't be times when government members disagree with the government and decide to act on that disagreement.
We have already had a bill in this Parliament that was a bit of private member's business, as you may recall, Mr. Chair. It effectively dealt with genetic discrimination and the ability—or now, the lessened ability—of insurance companies to require as a condition of insurance that people submit to the insurance company any information that had come from any kind of genetic testing.
Of course, this is a problem. It was a problem in Canada that this practice was allowed to continue when many other countries had rightfully done away with it. The problem was that insurance companies may then decide to deny coverage to people based on the results of that genetic testing, and that would be a disincentive for Canadians to do that testing because they would be afraid to get information that wasn't positive, which they would then be obligated to share with their insurance company.
Essentially, the upshot from a financial point of view was that they were better off not knowing because that would mean they would be able to get the appropriate insurance, or get insurance at a cheaper rate than they would otherwise get with the risk factors known to the insurance companies. However, from a health point of view, they would be far worse off because if they made the choice based on financial considerations, then they would be in a position where they were forgoing the opportunity to have the benefit of that genetic information, to know whether they needed to be assessed for early identification of various diseases or conditions.
The government came out very strongly against that legislation, and in no uncertain terms, they communicated very clearly to their members that they were to vote against that legislation. Now imagine if the government, prior to the vote.... Spoiler alert—there were a number of backbench MPs. I think it was in the neighbourhood of 40. I could be wrong. Perhaps some members here have a better sense, but it was in the neighbourhood of 40 backbench Liberal MPs who did decide to vote against the government and pass the bill.
It's as a result of their efforts and willingness to defy the government on that particular piece of legislation that Canadians will now be able to get genetic testing, find out whether they ought to be checked out for early indications of various conditions, and not have to worry that they'll be financially penalized for that. It's as a result of that defiance, if you will, by a number of backbench Liberal MPs that the law passed.
That's great, but now imagine if the government had, for some reason, appropriated a bunch of funds for the bill, to implement something if it passed, and then it didn't pass. Well now you'd be in a position of asking what to do with that money.
If the money had been authorized, but the conditions under which it was meant to be spent didn't come about, would the government just change its plan and say, “Well, we didn't get the legislative changes we wanted, but we're going to refer back to the high-level goal now and do something that doesn't require those legislative changes”? In that case, the money would clearly be used in a way that wasn't consistent with what Parliament approved it for.
That's why it's important that the statutory and legal authorities be in place prior to the funding request. That means that the government and Parliament itself aren't prejudging what the outcome of a vote or a debate in Parliament will be. I think we can imagine a number of ways in which having a new process for federal election leaders debates would precipitate some kind of legislative change.
I had alluded earlier to the idea that—and again, just to be perfectly clear, I'm not endorsing any of these possibilities that I'm going to mention. Some of them may be laudable, others may not. Some may be ones I end up supporting, others not, but that's not where we are in the discussion. Right now we're spitballing about ways we could have a new process for federal leaders debates because we haven't been given any direction by the Privy Council Office.
If we go long enough, we may get there, but then I would be speaking to another matter. Then I would be speaking to the substance of what a new process for federal leaders debates ought to look like. In my commitment to being relevant to the amendment at hand, I'm only talking about what the possibilities are, and how those might reflect either on the proposed budget, $750,000, or on rules and procedures of this place; hence, the lecture on legal and statutory mandates, because I think that's an important principle that ought to be observed throughout the appropriations process or supply process.
This would probably be the most crude way, and I'm really not sure a good way, that is, to pass a law that mandated federal leaders to show up at a certain number of debates. I will start with the most extreme end, and I will work my way through to more moderate versions of this position.
At the extreme end, the government might take it upon itself to simply name the dates and times, and to set up the debate effectively on its own, and then require federal party leaders to show up. The question is, what is the cost of these things is and where are the costs borne?
If you were to take the most heavy-handed approach, I think what you would find would be a government that legislates.... I'm not saying this is what the current government would do. I'm saying I think this is one of the most extreme versions I can imagine. Maybe other members have a more vivid imagination than I do, and when their turn comes in the debate they will illuminate us as to the vivacity of their.... I'm not sure how to convert that word, but anyway.
What I would say is if you had a government that said that they were going to take it upon themselves to set the dates and times, and just as we have fixed election dates, we're also going to have fixed leadership debates within that cycle, and a leader of a registered federal party that doesn't show up will be jailed.... You could make it an amendment to the criminal law. That would be one thing. Again, I'm not saying that's a good thing. I'm not saying it's a bad thing. I'm saying that's one thing you might imagine a government could do.
I think members would have some objection to that. Certainly federal party leaders might have an objection in terms of the substance, because they might say that's really a punishment that doesn't fit the crime. They might say they need to have some political discretion they can exercise with respect to debates and whether they show up or not. You could definitely imagine them feeling that way about it. Of course, the other thing it would do is that actually supporting a new process for federal election leaders debates would probably in that case be something that would incur new costs under the Department of Justice as opposed to under the Privy Council Office, which would be awkward and strange.
Is there a concert happening in the hallway?
That's one way that you could do it. You could say, “Look, as a matter of fact, you're required to be here, and if you're not here, then that's a criminal offence.”
Another way that you could do it would be to do it under the Canada Elections Act. If you did it under the Canada Elections Act, particularly if the punishment for not showing up was some kind of fine, then you would actually be generating revenue. If we knew that a new process for federal election leaders debates was going to be revenue generating, then we would have to consider that as we consider this price tag of $750,000 because perhaps then the costs both of developing and then implementing this new process would be offset by revenue. We can imagine that federal leaders would be likely to want to show up and not incur that cost, but it would be an open question as to whether or not they do.
Even as we think about that, another question comes up. Which leaders of federal parties would be eligible or would be required under the legislation? Would it just be leaders of official parties within the House of Commons prior to the last election? Would it be leaders of any registered political party that would then be part of this debate? Would it be leaders of federal political parties that are polling at a certain amount on the eve of the debate? I think there would be some considerable debate about what the qualification is. The reason this might have a cost implication is simply that if we're looking at whether or not a fine structure would generate revenue, it's going to matter how many federal political party leaders are required to be at the debate. If there's a whole bunch of them that are required to be at the debate, it's more likely that this will be a revenue-generating proposition than not.
Of course, there's another question that comes up with respect to trying to forecast revenue and, therefore, what it's appropriate for Parliament to approve if every leader of a federal political party is required to be at this debate. Of course, we know that some parties have more resources than others, and there may be a number of small parties without the means to fund their leader getting to that debate. In that case, they're going to have to undergo or submit to the fine. That is a question that bears on this.
I'd remind you, Mr. Chair and the committee, that the debate we're having on this particular initiative is so wide-ranging because when we had the departmental officials here and we asked questions about what they wanted to do with the money, they left virtually every possibility open. They in no way restricted our thinking in terms of what they may or may not be doing with that money. That's why I think it's quite relevant to be exploring some of the possibilities of what they might ultimately come up with.
Certainly, if I can think of these things, and if we hear other suggestions from other members of the committee, then it's by no means beyond the ability of government to contemplate these things as well. That would be the issue if they were contemplating legislative changes in the most basic, strict way.
Another way they might introduce legislative changes that would be relatively complex and I think actually require more funding.... Although as I said,, I think it would be important for them to make those legislative changes and then ask for the funding. This is another reason I think we can in good conscience support this amendment and remove this money from vote 40.
One other kind of legislative change would be not to have government decide the dates of those leaders debates but to actually constitute, through legislation, some kind of independent commission that would then be the organization that does that and does it in a way that's arm's length.
You will recall, Mr. Chair, some of the complaints—and this was kind of an important discussion in the last election but some of these grievances certainly predated the last election; the last election wasn't the only time they came up—had to do with a media consortium without any particular mandate or authority deciding when and where these debates would take place as well as how these debates would unfold. That's something that any new legislation establishing a commission would want to address. We don't know that it would because we don't have the proposed legislation. We don't even know if the government is really contemplating that legislation. It does say in the budget, and if somebody ever wanted to find the page.... Maybe I'll look for it as I speak, Mr. Chair, because I think it would be beneficial, and I do have a tab here that does mention it. The problem is that there are so many tabs. I was trying to identify programs where there was an issue with not having sufficient information about a budget item before providing approval, and the PCO is definitely in here because that was one of them.
Thank you for that intervention, Mr. Peterson. That allowed me to find the reference to the page that I was contemplating before. If you look at the budget entry for a new process for federal election leaders debate”, members of the committee will find this on page 186 of the budget document, “Equality + Growth: A Strong Middle Class”. For those who don't have a copy of the budget handy, I'll just read this into the record:
||Leaders' debates play an essential role in Canada's federal elections by engaging Canadians in the election campaigns and helping to inform their voting decision. Over the past 50 years, the way leaders' debates have been negotiated has put at risk the structure and potential usefulness of leaders' debates.
||The Government proposes to provide $6 million over two years....
Just by way of an explanatory note, what you see there is that with the government asking for only $750,000 this year, they are anticipating quite a large expenditure next year. That money would be used to support a new process that would ensure that federal leaders debates are organized in the public interest and improve Canadians' knowledge of the parties, their leaders, and their policy positions. The budget also states:
||In the coming months, the Minister of Democratic Institutions will bring forward potential approaches to leaders’ debates. The Government may introduce legislation to implement the approach taken to establish the new process for leaders’ debates.
You see there quite clearly that legislative changes of some kind are being contemplated. It's just that they don't commit to actually making any legislative changes but they are clearly contemplating them. We also hear that the will bring forward potential approaches, but again, it's not clear if she is going to consult and then develop some approaches. At that point, does that just go to Parliament? Does it go back out to Canada? What's the nature of consultation? What's the cost of consultation, or does she have something ready-made that they are considering, that they are just going to bring forward? At that point, either we will—
An hon. member: I find it quite interesting what you're saying.
Mr. Daniel Blaikie: Well, I do find it interesting that all of the Liberal members of the committee have just left.