Interventions in Committee
 
 
 
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View Alupa Clarke Profile
CPC (QC)
Right.
On the third page of your document, you say: “the government may be able to address some of these challenges by preparing and presenting its budget and estimates concurrently…”
What exactly do you mean? Does concurrently mean on the same day and with the same figures? Is that what you mean?
View Alupa Clarke Profile
CPC (QC)
Thank you, Mr. Chair.
Good afternoon, minister. Thank you for joining us this morning.
First, Her Majesty's official opposition wants to strongly reiterate that any change that may bring more transparency and align main estimates and supplementary estimates is in itself laudable.
Second, in theory, we are clearly talking about a reform of budgetary appropriations and of the process related to budgetary appropriations. However, it would also appear that, behind the facade, we are talking about a fundamental reform of Canada's parliamentary democracy, and I will tell you why. I believe that there are currently two opposing philosophies. There are two fundamental premises that you have indirectly addressed.
First is the premise where parliamentarians can better understand the budgetary processes—in other words, supplementary estimates and main estimates. That is the first premise. No one can be against it because it is good.
The second premise, which you also addressed, is the need for and importance of making the government responsible and accountable for its actions, including the budget, which is basically the government's main tool.
Those are the two opposing premises. When we look at our country's last 150 years, I think that our founding fathers and parliamentarians clearly chose the second premise. They chose the premise that tries to make the government responsible and accountable through the oversight of the use of public funds. Here is my question on that matter.
I want to bring you back to the mandate letter the Prime Minister publicly addressed to you. The fourth priority is to:
Strengthen the oversight of taxpayer dollars and the clarity and consistency of financial reporting. Ensure consistency and maximum alignment between the estimates [...]
That sentence shows the clash between the two premises. Your reform proposes clarity and consistency of financial reporting, as well as consistency and alignment of the estimates. On the contrary, your reform does not seem to really ensure and strengthen the oversight of public funds. We even have the impression that it's doing the opposite.
You yourself said:
more meaningful—okay, but government accountability, and the responsibility is less.
So there are two opposing premises and we, on this side of the House, want to ensure that the second premise, which has been maintained by parliamentarians for 150 years, will not be changed lightly. In addition, you are talking about a second standing order. Will there soon be a third one?
What do you have to say about the clash between those two philosophical premises that are important for our country's parliamentary democracy?
View Alupa Clarke Profile
CPC (QC)
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—
View Alupa Clarke Profile
CPC (QC)
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.
View Alupa Clarke Profile
CPC (QC)
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.
View Alupa Clarke Profile
CPC (QC)
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.
Thank you.
View Alupa Clarke Profile
CPC (QC)
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?
Thank you.
View Alupa Clarke Profile
CPC (QC)
Thank you, Mr. Chair.
Thank you, Minister, for this candid approach. We are very pleased you can stay longer. Thank you for being here with us today. It is much appreciated.
For Her Majesty's official opposition, this is a very interesting reform. Of course we would like to see a reform that guarantees the well-being of all Canadians. We are considering this reform very seriously and have questions that are serious as well. First of all, we think it entirely laudable to provide more coherence in order to improve the estimates review process that members carry out on behalf of Canadians.
I would like to continue along the lines of what my colleague Mr. McCauley was saying. You seemed to be saying we need an adjustment period. We think it might be a good idea to do what they are doing in Australia and to publish the budget and main estimates on the same day. Your departmental colleague mentioned that adjustments would have to be made to ensure greater flexibility. Could you tell us what those adjustments are that would have to be spread over a number of years?
View Alupa Clarke Profile
CPC (QC)
Minister, that leads me to another question.
The official opposition wants to ensure that the period traditionally allotted to members to evaluate the budget will not be shortened. We understand the concepts of flexibility, adjustments, and so on. That brings me to another point.
You feel it will take two or three years for the adjustments to be made. To demonstrate your goodwill, would it not be a good idea to take this opportunity to include a clause in the act providing that, within two or three years, the budget and main estimates will be presented on the same day?
Do you consider that a good idea and would you agree to explore it?
View Alupa Clarke Profile
CPC (QC)
Thank you, Mr. Chair. Thanks to the witnesses for being with us today.
Mr. Pagan, how long has Australia had its current budgetary cycle? It is in fact the one that Canada wants to adopt, according to this report on the adoption of a reform. Is that still the case in Australia or is it something recent?
View Alupa Clarke Profile
CPC (QC)
Do you know whether there were adjustment periods in Quebec, Ontario, and Australia, as we anticipate here?
View Alupa Clarke Profile
CPC (QC)
Thank you for everything you are saying, but I would like to get a precise answer.
Were Australia's budget and main estimates presented on the same date starting in the first year?
View Alupa Clarke Profile
CPC (QC)
All right.
I also read the following in the report:
“...a program-based vote structure would reduce departmental flexibility to reallocate funding....”
Based on that logic, do you expect we will establish a maximum for these inter-program transfers?
View Alupa Clarke Profile
CPC (QC)
The document provides no specific figures such as 10% in Quebec, for example. Do we expect to establish a threshold?
View Alupa Clarke Profile
CPC (QC)
Thank you once again for your answer.
Further on, the same report contains the following sentence:
“This flexibility allows departments to minimize the amount of lapsed funding.”
However, my Conservative Party colleagues on this committee and I are afraid that flexibility will be used
to mask true program costs and also to move money around in a less transparent way.
What do you think of that?
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