This is the 52nd meeting of the Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates.
The first item on our agenda is a continuation of our discussion on the estimates process which Minister Brison briefed us on, on Monday of this week. As we discussed on Monday, the question raised primarily by the government is, what process needs to be followed if a standing order is to be changed? I assured the government and all committee members that I would give you a briefing, rather than bring somebody in from procedure and House affairs, as I was the parliamentary secretary to that committee for nine years and intimately involved in standing order changes.
A few things could be done.
Number one, the procedure and House affairs committee, which I'll refer to as PROC from here on in, is responsible for the Standing Orders. Primarily, they're under their jurisdiction. If any standing orders were to be changed, the change should come as a result of a report tabled in Parliament by PROC.
We can do a couple of different things. This committee could instruct me as chair to write to PROC saying that we wish them to deal with this, and if we have agreement on any changes to a standing order, we could put that in the instructions to PROC. They would then table it in Parliament. If the government sought unanimous consent and received it, the Clerk would be instructed to change the standing order immediately. If there was no unanimous consent, then the government would have to put a motion on the order paper to adopt the report from PROC. That would come back to the House for a three-hour debate and then a vote. If passed, the Clerk would change the standing order.
However, this committee could, to begin with, as an option, refer the entire question of changing the Standing Orders based on the minister's presentation to PROC, and they would deal with the entire situation: debate it, discuss it, probably invite the minister in, and deal with it at that level.
My only point, and I reiterate this and I said this at our last meeting, is it has been the custom that when any changes to the Standing Orders take place, unanimous consent has been sought, and on almost all occasions has been granted. Once again, I will refer to the last time we had any meaningful debate on changes to the Standing Orders.
I chaired an all-party committee on standing order changes, and frankly it was a suggestion that I made and was endorsed and accepted by all recognized parties that any changes we would recommend would have to be approved unanimously by all parties. There were a number of examples, which I don't have to give today, but I will if you ask, where various parties would bring a proposed change to our meeting on these proposed changes. The NDP, I recall, at one time had proposed one or two changes to the Standing Orders. One of the three parties said they didn't agree, end of discussion. Conversely, the Liberals on one or two occasions brought forward a standing order they would like to see changed, and one of the other two parties said they didn't agree, end of discussion.
I recall from our side, the government side at that time, I know I had been spoken to by—and I'm going to give you a specific example here because I want you to understand how I approach this, and I think it was the right approach. A number of our members suggested we make a change to the standing order that now talks about standing five members. We all know if there's a voice vote, and there are yeas and nays, someone has to stand five to force a recorded vote. I know this is public, and I'm going to have to choose my words carefully because I'm going over factual information. On a few occasions, the independents voted to stand five to block a unanimous adoption of a motion or an initiative by the government.
Some members asked—there were only seven of them—why we didn't change the Standing Orders to make it 10 rather than five, because back in the 1970s and 1980s when there were only 230 or 240 members, that's when you stood five. Now, because there are 300-and-some members, it would be easily defensible to say that we want to change the limit from five to 10 because there are more members. I wouldn't take that to the committee because I said, in my estimation, that looks as if the government is trying to use the Standing Orders for its own political gain.
That's simply not what the Standing Orders are all about. They are supposed to benefit all parliamentarians. They are our rules, our guidebook, and they are there for a reason. So they shouldn't be played with by any government, whether by a majority situation or not, to try to benefit politically. So, literally, I just refused to bring that to the table.
That committee worked very well. There wasn't a whole bunch of changes to the Standing Orders and, frankly, that's probably a good thing. But there were a few that we all agreed on, mainly housekeeping and housecleaning types of issues, and it worked very well.
I raise that here because Minister Brison is talking about a change to the Standing Orders. I'm not sure what the government's view on that is, but I can just tell you, historically, that's how things have worked here. There has to be unanimity.
It doesn't have to be that way. Clearly, if this committee or PROC wanted to bring this issue forward, even if there wasn't unanimity, the government, if it could force a vote, could almost force PROC to table a report in Parliament and it could enact changes that way. I just caution you that it's maybe a very slippery slope and you might want to consider before going down that road.
In any event, that's the procedure. That's what could happen.
Again, to recap, you could either refer the entire issue to PROC, let the minister deal with PROC directly, and it could go from there, or this committee could decide we want to discuss the issue and ultimately make a decision. If the decision was to refer this to PROC, then I would write the letter and it would deal with it. But that's the cleanest way.
Go ahead, Madam Ratansi.
I raised my hand a few minutes ago.
This proposal gives rise to a political context that marks a key turning point, one we cannot take lightly. As my colleague said, that is the view of Her Majesty's official opposition at this time.
The desire to align the main estimates and the government's budget is indeed commendable. We are noticing, however, that the approach has some flaws. For that reason, we have serious concerns, not about the intentions behind the proposal, which are entirely commendable, but about its potential consequences.
One of the cornerstones of our parliamentary system, rooted in the Westminster tradition and going back a thousand years, going back, in fact, to 1215 and the Magna Carta treaty—
No, the Magna Carta dates back to 1215. Our system goes back to 1867, even before that, because united Canada had parliaments. It's important to hold the government accountable not just for election promises, but also for budget appropriation votes, which represent tens of thousands of dollars in spending.
Remember that every political party has the potential to wind up in the opposition at some point or another. We know that well, and it will probably happen to you in three years' time, if not later—heaven only knows. You should not consider what we are telling you today strictly through the government lens, but also through the lens of every parliamentary participant.
There is a reason Australia brought in the reform. Its supplementary estimates are now released the same day as the budget. That prevents a waste of two very important months by all parliamentarians, including elected members of the government party who are not in cabinet. I would point out that they, too, have a mandate to protect ministerial responsibility and to hold the government accountable for its actions and decisions, particularly in budget matters, the focus of our discussion today.
By moving forward with such a major reform of our parliamentary system, which is rooted in the Westminster tradition, in other words, by allowing the supplementary estimates to be tabled on May 1, we would lose nearly two months that could have been spent conducting studies and holding ministers to account before our committees and the committee of the whole in the House of Commons, as well as during question period. With this reform, we would lose two months that could have been used to study and scrutinize the numbers, time that even ministers could have used to prepare their responses.
I was taken aback when the minister was here and told the committee that he wanted to push the date to May 1, because, in our context, it requires adjustments and a certain degree of flexibility over two or three years in order to eventually table the budget and estimates on the same day. I asked him what would be wrong with including a provision in the legislation stipulating that, in three years' time, the two documents would be tabled on the same day. He couldn't answer me. Even without such a provision, however, Australia managed, in its first year, to present both documents on the same day, without the need for adjustments or flexibility.
I'll stop there so as not to bore you, but I would like to carry on with this discussion.
Mr. Chair, I'd like to welcome Mr. Clarke to this discussion on the estimates. This is only the second meeting on it, but it looks like he is trying to read up and get well apprised of the issues. Clearly, he understands, first of all, that when we get the documents as they are currently coming to us before March 1, they don't contain any new budgetary measures, so we are not scrutinizing what's important, which is exactly the reason Treasury Board has asked us to do a study into these things.
I appreciate there are a lot of nuances here. When we talk about May 1, we are actually talking about that as a last possible date. Under the current rules and structure, this really is the time it happens, and the reason is that people wait to get all the various feed-ins—not from the budgetary process but from departmental processes—in order to say, “This is what we would spend next year if no changes were made”, and all departments feed into that. We are talking about realigning the process so that people really get an opportunity to vet what is worth vetting.
The document Mr. Clarke is concerned about having the opportunity to vet, as we've seen in many of the presentations, will be called the interim supply bill, and it will come with all the same information of what we will spend—not for the whole year but for the next three months—should there be no budget. You'll have the same opportunity to re-scrutinize budget spending based on the previous year's budget, which in some years will align closely, but it will be more transparent to people as to what is actually being discussed.
When we look at something that's called main estimates, it should really be the main estimates of the budget for that year. What we have now is not.
Just to bring it full circle, Mr. Clarke, I believe that, rather than asking ourselves to pull on this string of all the various changes to the Standing Orders that might make sense to make it work, we can say that what we think is more appropriate, what the department officials have told us is more appropriate, is that we change this date to May 1. It will allow them, next year, to provide the necessary documents for us to pilot this project, and then over time they can gradually bring it back earlier in the calendar. Who knows, they may be able to table it earlier in the calendar in the coming year.
At the same time, you will still get the exact same information you want to receive, but instead of it being called main estimates, it will be called interim supply. There will be the same opportunity you are looking for to scrutinize government spending on the basis of the current budget plans that the government has in place. The government has been able to implement many of the changes it promised to make during the election campaign. It will already be something where you'll have an opportunity to say, “Yes, this is what you did last year. This is what it looks like for three months.” We won't lose that opportunity, but if we don't make these changes now—if we don't put ourselves, now, in a position where Parliament is better able to hold the government to account—it will only get more and more difficult to make these changes as our government gets older.
We all realize there is political pressure on people over time to have these discussions. Right now is the time, early in a mandate, to make changes to hold the government to account, when everyone's interests are aligned in doing that, so I would ask you to seriously consider allowing us to unanimously propose that PROC consider the exact mechanism, the exact date on which these things could happen. They may decide to put in some measures to provide the protections Mr. Clarke is looking for to particularize interim supply. That is not open to us. We are not masters of PROC. We are not masters of the Standing Orders, but we do know the estimates, and we do understand—we've heard lots of testimony—the problems with the estimates.
This is a very simple and quick way to allow us not to miss the runway, to land something important, a fundamental change in our system that will really help governance in Canada. I ask you to reconsider your position on this, and hopefully we can move this forward in a meaningful way, as quickly as possible.
There is something from an accounting perspective and I can't seem to understand what you guys are saying, and I need some clarification. If you clarify it for me, maybe it will help me.
I get the main estimates and I spend time on them. Then the budget comes along and everything that I voted for goes out the door, and I'm sitting there thinking, what on God's earth did you take me on a ride for? I have listened to it. I've done it. Then the supplementary estimates are the ones that have the whole budget. Where is the transparency? Where is the accountability? Who are you going to question? If we're all being non-partisan and logical, the question we need to ask ourselves about is.... Here are the figures; I voted on them, and they mean nothing, and so I've been taken for a ride. Why isn't there the alignment that would indicate, for example, what the government is really going to spend on infrastructure, or whatever, and then we can challenge the minister? At the moment we're challenging the minister with figures that don't make sense.
If somebody could help me, I'd be willing to listen. It's debits and credits.
In response to the remarks made by Mr. Whalen and Ms. Ratansi, I would say that the current process is very positive.
I think that Canadian society has enjoyed a fine democracy since 1867 because the Liberal Party or the Conservative Party has always been in power. I'm aware of that fact, and I recognize it.
The Liberals, however, have a tendency to pursue any reform with great haste, which can sometimes be a very good thing. It has led to legislation that has improved our democracy.
The Conservatives are politically inclined to be more cautious and adopt a more gradual approach in their analysis of proposed reforms. That, too, has been extremely beneficial to Canada's democracy, preventing the adoption of certain reforms that would have hurt the political freedom not just of Canadians, but also of members.
Mr. Whalen, you said the purpose of the reform was to make sure members do a better job of holding the government to account by having access to figures that are more accurate than those provided for under the current process. You may be right, except that the change would shorten that accountability period, which Mr. McCauley and I believe is fundamental, as I'm sure you do. The proposed reform would shorten that absolutely crucial period.
All House of Commons committees have to scrutinize the main estimates. Ms. Ratansi said it would be useful to see how much time we had spent studying the main estimates last year, but we would need to start by knowing how much time all House of Commons committees had spent studying those estimates. If we are to proceed logically and rationally, we would need to determine how much time all House of Commons committees had spent studying the estimates since 1867. We can't consider only the amount of time spent last year before concluding that, at the end of the day, it had taken less time than previously thought.
There's something else I'd like to talk about, the third pillar, which deals with vote structure. Again, I was taken aback by the senior official's response when he appeared before the committee, and I say that with all due respect. He said that, right now, in Ontario and Quebec, the provincial government can transfer money from one program to another. That gives rise to transparency issues and opens the door to one program serving as a front for another.
To fix that problem, Ontario and Quebec capped the proportion of funding that a ministry can transfer from one program to another at 10%. I asked the official whether the proposed reform would establish a limit on the maximum amount of funding that could be transferred from one program to another. He said no. Therefore, the third pillar, vote structure, is another concern of ours.
Rather than continue talking, I will turn the floor over to you so you can respond to what I just said.
I just want to follow up.
Mr. Drouin, welcome back. We missed you on Canada Post. No one is laughing at that.
My colleague mentioned that it is not just us who have to review estimates, there are quite a few other committees. It's not just us who have to corral all the ministers over a 15-day period.
Ms. Ratansi, I'm sure it was not your intent, but it's almost as if you were implying that we were not in favour of aligning. Maybe I misunderstood you. We, and I think Mr. Weir as well, are fully in agreement that it is in the interests of all Canadians, and all governments now and future, that we do align the budget with the estimates. However, we still strongly believe that we must have enough time for the oversight and time to look at it. No one is arguing against aligning the budget.
There's a very simple issue immediately, which is, again, to move up the budget process to February. The Aussies, who we use as a role model on this issue, despite turning over the government many times over even a two-year period, have managed to do it 21 of the last 22 years, and I think something like 90 years before that they were able to do it at the same month year after year.
I realize it's extra work, but I have great faith in our Finance department and the other departments within our government that we can get it done at a previous time. We fully support aligning the budget with the estimates, short interim estimates and then the mains afterwards. Oversight, transparency, and the ability of this and future opposition parties to hold the government to account are not served, nor is the public served, by minimizing the amount of time that we have.
We're not trying to effect anything other than aligning the budget and the estimates process. The rules by which ministers are called before various committees to defend their departmental spending are currently based on the provision of the document currently called the main estimates, which is really what is going to turn into interim supply.
It would be open to PROC, understanding maybe from another line in our directional request to them, to make sure that they consider other aspects of the rules that don't limit the time for people to call ministers before them, by saying that we'll just trigger it based on the provision of interim supply, or we'll trigger it based on May 1, whether interim supply is tabled or not, or on whatever the appropriate rule is. Again, it's not our purview.
Concerning other transitional provisions that might be put in place, such as Mr. Weir's and also Messrs. McCauley and Clarke's concern that May 1 is too late, too far in the future, it might be okay for the next couple of years, because that's what the department has said is possible, and much of politics is the art of the possible, but we need to see a movement forward of that idea. I don't think even anyone on our side ultimately wants to see the main estimates only be delivered on May 1 of every year. We want to see government function. We want to have an opportunity to appropriately debate spending on all sides of the House.
Indeed, it was the commitment from Treasury Board that they would try to bring it forward. Maybe an agreement could be reached in PROC about what an appropriate pull forward would be. PROC might determine that it be May 1 for the next two years and April 1 after that. That might be something that PROC could reach unanimity on. But again, I'm only speculating.
I like Mr. Weir's idea that we say there be something among the orders such as “or such other changes as PROC sees fit”, to ensure that our members of Parliament have the opportunity to scrutinize and question ministers and see an ultimate advance in the time by which the main estimates and the budget are presented before the House.
My only commentary to that is that once you make a change to the Standing Orders, it's permanent. You wouldn't, in my view—I think I'm on pretty solid ground here—be able to put in a standing order which says that for the next two years it will be May 1, and subsequently, after that, it's either May 1 or it's not.
Frankly, I have no intention of impugning the intentions of the minister. I think he's pure in his intentions. He wants to do this well before May 1. I think the difficulty arising from it is what I hear from the opposition, that once it's May 1, future governments are not bound to anything this minister may want to do. If a future government wanted to delay it to May 1 for whatever reasons, they could do so.
These are some of the problems I think we're experiencing here.
I just want to enlighten my colleagues on the other side.
Mr. Clarke raised a good point in terms of how much time it takes for other committees to look at the main estimates. The good thing about www.parl.gc.ca is that you get access to quick information like this.
Last year all committees took one meeting, two at the most, but the majority took one meeting. In Transport, for example, the main estimates were done March 1, and by March 9, they already had them in front of the committee. They had eight days to scrutinize them. During Mr. Harper's time, on March 20, 2013, the Canadian Heritage department was in front of the committee to do main estimates.
Again, I understand the concern, but if we look back at history, they've been pretty quick to look at those. I think May 1—and May 1, I hope, is not the goal; I would rather have it sooner—will leave plenty of time for all of the committees to scrutinize the main estimates.
Thank you, Mr. Drouin, for your insight. It's much appreciated.
Not only are you looking at a single year, but you are also focusing on just standing committees and not committees of the whole. More importantly, you didn't mention Canadians. They may not be here in this room, but there are Canadians—and it may be hard to believe even if they aren't university professors or members of interest groups—who review the main estimates themselves. Some of them may very well want to send a letter or write an email to their MP to ask about what is going on. That, too, has to be taken into account.
Ms. Ratansi, it is true—and the chair, himself, mentioned it—that the main estimates are somewhat hard to make sense of given that they are examined prior to the budget. I understand the problem, but I'm having a lot of trouble wrapping my head around the argument that it doesn't work. We have been doing it this way for 150 years. Canada is an incredible country with the seventh largest economy in the world. The government does work fairly well, then. There's no need for urgency, no reason to panic. We are talking about a major reform.
Ms. Ratansi, you said we shouldn't be circling the wagon, but that may be what your minister is doing. That brings me to Mr. Whalen's comment that it might not be appropriate for this committee to study the process for considering the main estimates. In 2012, however, the Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates did, in fact, study the process for considering the estimates and supply. The committee addressed the alignment of the budget and the estimates in recommendation 6 of its report, which reads as follows:
That, to the extent possible, the budget items for a given year are reflected in the main estimates for that same year; and therefore that the government present its budget in the House of Commons no later than February 1 of each year; that the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs pursue amendments to the Standing Orders, procedure and practice of the House of Commons in order to move the date on which the main estimates are presented to the House back to a later date in March; and that the Committee report to the House on its study by March 31, 2013.
Therefore, Ms. Ratansi, if you don't want us to keep circling the wagon, perhaps your minister should have taken into account that recommendation, which was issued by this very same committee, but with a different membership, in 2012. We aren't going in circles: concerns were raised and published four years ago, in 2012. Supposedly, we are drawing on Australia's model, but I can't see why we don't simply follow Australia's model. It has an identical parliamentary system to ours, and its government determined that the budget and main estimates should be presented on the same day. I don't feel that we are going in circles. Quite the contrary, actually—we are discussing an extremely important matter.
Before I go to our next speaker, Mr. Ayoub, I should clarify something about the Standing Orders. When I mentioned before that the Standing Orders are permanent, and if May 1, for example, was placed in the Standing Orders, that would be permanent, that is true. There is also an option to present and to approve provisional standing orders, which can be done for a limited period of time. There are also sessional orders, which can be done just for the length of one Parliament. These provisional standing orders could be done for a finite period of time: one year, two years, three years, after which they could be discharged, made permanent, or amended.
The reason I'm pointing that out is you have to be very careful with your choice of words if this was ever referred to PROC. If you're inviting to change a standing order, it would have to be described as you're inviting them to perhaps enact a provisional standing order and follow that with the reasons.
Anyway, Monsieur Ayoub, it's your turn, please.
If our position was misunderstood, I apologize. I am going to try to bring clarity to it all right now.
On our side, we believe it is absolutely essential to align the budget and the main estimates, not to mention commendable. What we don't want, however, is to see the democratic accountability mechanisms provided for under the Westminster tradition diminished.
Mr. Ayoub, you asked what we wanted to change, but that's not the right question. What matters to us is what we don't want to see changed. As I just said, it is that three-month period, which is crucial. In Australia, it wasn't necessary to shorten it. It stayed the same.
Mr. Whalen, you talked about timing. In fact, we are talking about a window of opportunity, a much-loved concept in the political science world. I, myself have often used it in my work. A window of opportunity, yes, but you also talked about an appetite. I wonder what that appetite is and where it's coming from. I've never heard Canadians talk about this problem, which is clearly an internal one.
Even though the problem is internal, it still involves a very serious reform of our parliamentary democracy. It is just as important as electoral reform, if not more. To my mind, both issues are on the same level. If I recall correctly, electoral reform was part of the Liberal Party's election platform. Conversely, the reform we are talking about, a very significant change that would affect the mechanisms of the Westminster system, was not part of that platform.
Where, then, Mr. Whalen, is the appetite you speak of coming from?
Yes, Mr. Clarke, just in response to your question to me, the appetite comes from our commitments. I think we made 300-odd commitments during the election, and as we travel through this mandate, we find that only so many changes can be implemented at one time because there are opposition parties that want to make sure we do it in an appropriate fashion.
Particularly with the budget, because the budget cycle operates a couple of years in advance, really, in terms of the preparation, the timing, and the policy development, as we get closer to the next election from a budgetary cycle change standpoint, it's much closer than it appears. We need to get through a couple of cycles of a change in our processes to make sure that they work and they can be advanced forward. If we try to do these in the midst of an election, I would feel less comfortable about them.
That's my appetite, but it's not necessarily the appetite of Canadians. I can't speak for the appetite of Canadians on this point. It certainly wasn't something I heard about at the doors. This type of estimates reform is something that comes in this chamber. People don't talk about it to me on the street.
Mr. Weir, if we want to be involved in the process, PROC is perfectly able to make its own decisions based on a recommendation from the minister if he chooses to go before PROC to ask them to do their own study. When he was here earlier in the week, the minister asked us to do this. If we found that it would be worthwhile to make a specific recommendation about the timing that was capable of being achieved, based on the study we've done, we could make some type of an informed and specific suggestion to PROC so that they had some comfort that we weren't completely at odds with it, that we at least had some sense that this was achievable. It would ultimately achieve the long-term aims of having the alignment of the budgets in the estimates process.
Mr. McCauley and Mr. Clarke, my proposal on making sure that ministers would be held to account is that we could add a line saying that in respect of invitations to ministers before committees for review, that those rules apply to the interim supply. That way there would be no lost time on having ministers come before various committees in respect of the information that's already been received. Currently the main estimates are a pseudo interim supply bill with anything that the government might know the costing of before the budget is tabled. It's very haphazard. It's very difficult to follow. It ends up wasting parliamentarians' time in terms of the type of review they do. That's why we're engaged.
I proposed something specific that I thought would alleviate your concerns. I get the sense that it hasn't. If I'm wrong about that, I would love to hear it, in which case I'd be very happy to continue forward with a specific motion that we recommend that PROC, on some basis, choose May 1 as the date, and also at the same time make sure that ministers are available on interim supply from the current date, which I understand to be March 1.
Perhaps I could make some commentary since I don't see other names on the list.
Mr. McCauley, let me make a couple of observations first and then see if I can put a ring fence around this.
I'm hearing a couple of things. Obviously, we don't have unanimity on this issue, which is fine. We have a couple of options as I see it.
One, as has been suggested by a couple of our committee members, we can continue with this study, book a couple more meetings—should we find room for them, and I think we can make room for them—and bring in additional witnesses to speak to specific concerns that some members may have, to find out what might be the art of the possible. Obviously, the minister would have to come back with TB officials to answer some of the questions.
We could, as suggested by both Mr. Whalen and Mr. Weir, refer this right over to PROC and let them deal with. They would probably have to go back to square one and start the whole examination themselves.
I have a sense, and maybe I'm wrong, that we're not going to get any unanimity on this today. I'm not trying to short-circuit the discussion because I think it's valuable, but I think we're reaching a bit of an impasse and I'm looking at some way to resolve that impasse.
My suggestion, if I would have any, would be that we do either one of two things: continue with the study of this very issue, bringing in witnesses rather than just having a general conversation, or make a determination today that we want to punt this over to PROC and let them deal with it.