By Aaron Wherry - Tuesday, May 14, 2013 - 0 Comments
John Ivison says Tony Clement was shocked to learn that the $3.1 billion in anti-terrorism funding couldn’t be tracked and Ivison suggests part of the solution is reforming the estimates process. The Hill Times considers the same possibility.
The thought that estimates reform might be linked to the missing $3.1 billion occurred to me when the Auditor General released his report, so I asked Scott Clark and Peter DeVries if there was such a link to be made. In response, they suggested there was not.
The information on what happened to the $3.1 billion will not be resolved by any of the proposed changes to the Estimates process. Since all monies must be approved by Treasury Board and then Parliament, the records are there as to what happened to the $3.1 billion. However, to find out would be very time consuming given the number of years under review. If it lapsed, the info should be there. If it was reprofiled, TB would have to approve it. If it was reallocated to other programs, TB would have to approve it.
After John’s column yesterday, I double-checked with Scott and Peter. Was moving to a program-based estimates system a solution to problems such as $3.1 billion?
Not necessarily. TBS and departments would still need to keep track of all of the transactions as to whether they lapsed, were reprofied or directed to another vote or program. Details on programs would require more info. There is no reason why the $3.1 b can’t be accounted for except for slopply paper work. The same could happen under a program system.
Whatever the applicability of estimates reform to the question of the $3.1 billion, the estimates process needs to be reform. And $70 million seems a relatively small price to pay to ensue Parliament can better scrutinize government spending. As no less than the Finance Minister was recently moved to declare, “Canadians are entitled to know what their government is up to.” And $70 million is considerably less than the Harper government has already spent on “economic action plan” ads.
By Aaron Wherry - Monday, May 6, 2013 at 11:09 PM - 0 Comments
Last week, Thomas Mulcair recalled, it was discovered that the Conservatives had lost track of $3.1 billion. The Auditor General, Mr. Mulcair declared, has regularly suggested that the Conservatives be more transparent. And so what, Mr. Mulcair wondered, have the Conservatives done to date to find that $3.1 billion.
Jason Kenney, leading the Conservatives this day, was unimpressed.
“Mr. Speaker, as usual,” Mr. Kenney lamented, “the question of the honourable Leader of the Opposition is not fair.”
Life, alas, is not fair. But protesting that fact tends to be counter-productive.
The Auditor General, Mr. Kenney explained, had said that the money hadn’t been used in a way in which it should not have been. Thus, it is all good.
Mr. Mulcair, mostly eschewing his notes to engage the government side directly and with the benefit of something the government seems unable to account for, was confidently unpersuaded. Continue…
By Aaron Wherry - Monday, April 1, 2013 at 1:15 PM - 0 Comments
Scott Clark and Peter DeVries explain how to fix the estimates process.
Ask the President of the Treasury Board about whether spending will be going up or down in 2013-14 and he’ll tell you that it’s going down. Ask the Minister of Finance and he’ll say it’s going up. Who is right and why the conflicting answers? The Minister of Finance will likely be more accurate than the President of the Treasury Board. But why the confusion and why can’t Canadians and Parliamentarians get a straight answer?
See previously: Do you know how your federal government is spending your money?, ‘The fact is no one in Parliament can tell Canadians what the government is planning to spend‘ and ‘Parliament has lost control of the estimate process’
By Aaron Wherry - Monday, March 18, 2013 at 4:05 PM - 0 Comments
Friday morning, I sat down with Kevin Page to discuss his time as Parliamentary Budget Officer, the future of the office and the ability of Parliament to scrutinize government spending.
Above is video of six and a half minutes of that conversation and below is a fuller, but slightly abridged, transcript of our 25-minute chat. Continue…
By Aaron Wherry - Thursday, March 14, 2013 at 12:25 PM - 0 Comments
Jim Flaherty has announced that the federal budget—or “Economic Action Plan 2013“—will be tabled on March 21.
Stephen Gordon offers his wish list here and Erica Alini looks at the wider economic trends here. Stephen previously considered how the latest GDP numbers should impact the budget here. And John Geddes looks at defence spending here.
By Aaron Wherry - Wednesday, March 6, 2013 at 11:56 AM - 0 Comments
Colin Horgan compares the concerns of the “non-partisan” (in the Prime Minister’s estimation) CD Howe Institute with the “partisan” (in the Prime Minister’s estimation) criticisms of Scott Clark and Peter DeVries.
Concerns about Parliament’s ability to scrutinize government spending are not quite novel, nor limited to individuals who the Prime Minister and Finance Minister might easily dismiss as Liberals. Here is Conservative MP Mike Wallace expressing concern in July 2011. And here is Conservative MP Daryl Kramp expressing concern in December 2011. (It might also be relevant to note that the G8 Legacy Fund was criticized by the auditor general, in part, for how it was not clearly identified in the estimates.)
Complaints, of course, also predate this government. Here, for instance, is what a young Reform MP in March 1995.
As British history unfolded, Parliament asserted more and more its rights, not only to give its approval and its input, but to control the entire process: to control the agenda, to select ministers, to ultimately provide responsible government and democratic control over the affairs of the crown.
The funny thing about this is that as time went on the process almost reversed itself. Gradually Parliament pushed the crown out as the governing force in British democratic countries. As soon as that happened, the government increasingly became a force very much independent of Parliament, until it is as we have it today, where estimates are presented in the hundreds of billions of dollars, approved by Parliament without serious scrutiny, almost on a ritualistic basis. We saw that here last week.
Auditors General have pointed out on many occasions, and in many different ways, that Parliament has lost control of the estimate process. The question will increasingly arise, particularly as we go through this period of governments cutting spending, cutting favours and the goodies which they give to the population, as to why people believe that this process protects their interests, protects their tax dollars and protects their financial interests.
Eleven years later, a slightly older Stephen Harper was still sufficiently concerned that he ran on a platform that included the creation of “an independent Parliamentary Budget Authority” on the grounds that “governments cannot be held to account if Parliament does not know the accurate state of public finances.”
Maybe Mr. Harper now thinks that his government has completely rectified the situation and that the concerns of Mr. Clark and Mr. DeVries are thus baseless. But then, even the irreproachable CD Howe Institute seems to quibble.
By Aaron Wherry - Tuesday, March 5, 2013 at 6:20 PM - 0 Comments
With his second question, Thomas Mulcair rounded on the Finance Minister.
“Mr. Speaker, the Finance Minister announces changes to mortgage rules and then reverses them. The Finance Minister announces changes to skilled training programs and then reverses them, all without warning, all without consultation, all at great cost,” Mr. Mulcair declared. “It is no wonder that senior public servants from the Finance Minister’s own office are now calling his actions ‘a disgrace and an insult to Parliament.’ ”
The NDP leader had slipped two ways here. First, the two senior public servants in this case—Scott Clark and Peter DeVries—are formerly of the finance department and neither ever worked under the authority of Jim Flaherty. Second, the specific “disgrace” and “insult” to Parliament referred to was the practice of omnibus legislation.
The Prime Minister might remember feeling somewhat likewise about omnibus bills, but he stood here to resolutely defend his Finance Minister. “Canada is very lucky to have the most successful finance minister in the world,” Mr. Harper proclaimed. “That has been recognized by experts in this field around the world and is backed by the performance of the Canadian economy. In spite of the tremendous difficulties that continue to exist, the global uncertainty, the Canadian economy has managed to created 900,000 net new jobs since the end of the recession and that is due, in no small measure, to the good efforts of the Minister of Finance.”
Mr. Mulcair persisted, returning to the matter of Mr. Flaherty’s letter to the CRTC. Mr. Harper persisted in defending his minister. Somehow or another this culminated in John Duncan, the former aboriginal affairs minister who was recently dispatched after an errant letter to the tax court, receiving a standing ovation from the Conservatives.
When Bob Rae stood to ask his first question, he returned the House to this matter of the former public servants and their quibbles with the government’s general approach to budgetary matters. Continue…
By Aaron Wherry - Tuesday, March 5, 2013 at 11:12 AM - 0 Comments
Scott Clark and Peter DeVries explain all of the ways the federal budgetary process fails.
The two budget Bills associated with the 2012 budget were, to put it mildly, a disgrace and an insult to Parliament and to Canadians. The use of Budget Omnibus Bills has grown to the point that they seriously undermine the integrity and credibility of the budget process and the authority of Parliament. Little information is now provided in the Budget, so it has become impossible in reading the budget documents to fully understand what the government is actually proposing to do. There is a clear lack of transparency and accountability.
There is an urgent need to restore the role of Parliament and its committees in assessing, reviewing, and approving proposed legislation. Without sufficient information and clear intention of the proposed initiatives, Parliament and its Committees cannot properly assess the budget. Parliamentary debate is stifled, public involvement ignored and the implementation of good public policy prevented.
See previously: Do you know how your government is spending your money?
By Aaron Wherry - Tuesday, February 26, 2013 at 8:00 AM - 0 Comments
Tony Clement tabled the main estimates yesterday afternoon. Postmedia and iPolitics note some of the cuts that might be presaged by the estimates, depending on what is including in the federal budget, but this is a good moment to recall—see here, here, here, here, here and here—just how little is clear about how the government spends money.
The government operations committee’s report on reforming the system, including the discrepancy between the main estimates and the budget, is here.
Kevin Page’s opening statement to the committee is here.
One of the key principles underlying responsible parliamentary government is that the House of Commons holds the “power of the purse”. The House must be able to satisfy itself, as the confidence chamber, that all spending and taxation is consistent with legislation, Parliament’s intentions, and the principles of parliamentary control. When this is accomplished, Parliament is serving Canadians. In my view, this is rarely accomplished.
Scott Clark and Peter DeVries explained the system’s shortcomings in a long review posted in August 2011.
The reality is that Parliamentarians and Canadians in general are in the dark about what the Government is planning to spend this year. Even worse, the Government is making no effort to clear up the confusion and provide greater transparency and ultimately greater accountability.
And, of course, there is also Mr. Page’s quest for details of the government’s cuts (which is perhaps all the more reason to clarify Mr. Page’s mandate and his power to compel disclosure).
By Aaron Wherry - Friday, February 22, 2013 at 9:45 AM - 0 Comments
The parliamentary budget officers of the OECD are meeting in Ottawa this week. NDP MP Pat Martin, as chair of the government operations committee, gave a keynote address to the gathering last night. Here is the prepared text of that speech.
Great to be here with you today.
Sunlight is a powerful disinfectant, and Freedom of information is the oxygen democracy breathes. These are two of my favorite cliché’s and they find their way into a lot of my speeches so I might as well get them out of the way right off the top.
I didn’t write either of those sayings…in fact I don’t know their origins…but they are truths that I have come to know and believe after 16 years in the trenches as a Member of Parliament.
Simply put, The public has a right to know what their government is doing with their money and secrecy is the natural enemy of good public administration…that simple message pretty well sums up my six terms in Parliament and I try to shout it from the roof tops every chance I get. In fact, I’m thinking of getting tattoo to that effect …and it may even make a fitting epitaph on my tombstone when I finally succumb to injuries sustained by banging my head against the brick wall of the vault, where our Government has been hoarding information.
By Aaron Wherry - Monday, October 22, 2012 at 11:01 AM - 0 Comments
Tony Clement’s director of communications lamented last night that this post did not recognize the estimates reforms Mr. Clement did support (for awhile this weekend that post was missing the link to the CP story in question).
I said I’d be happy to post Mr. Clement’s response to the government operations committee in full and you can now view his full response here.
By Aaron Wherry - Saturday, October 20, 2012 at 1:41 PM - 0 Comments
The committee had also asked that each department’s annual spending plans, tabled in the House each spring, include details on the value of tax breaks provided to corporations and individuals. Currently, the Finance Department produces an annual report on these so-called tax expenditures but the information is difficult to link back to departmental programs. Clement rejected that proposal as well, saying it would make other ministers responsible for tax breaks that are solely the purview of the finance minister. ”This would not be appropriate as it would not be consistent with the principle of ministerial accountability,” Clement wrote.
Committee members also wanted a study on whether the parliamentary budget officer —currently Kevin Page, who regularly bumps heads with the Harper government — should be given independent powers as an officer of Parliament rather than working under the Library of Parliament. Clement noted that the issue had already been studied by Parliament and that the job was considered a “natural extension” of the library’s work.
The committee included five Conservatives, including Mike Wallace, who, in July, said, “we will be keeping the government’s … feet to the fire on it to see if we can implement some of these changes.”
By Aaron Wherry - Monday, July 16, 2012 at 11:04 AM - 0 Comments
Dean Beeby revisits the government operations committee’s report on Parliament’s ability to scrutinize government spending.
A new report says arcane rules are keeping MPs in the dark about the billions in government spending they should be scrutinizing. Members of Parliament receive conflicting, outdated information about how billions of tax dollars are being spent each year, and get little opportunity to review fiscal plans.
Just this spring, not a single House of Commons committee was able to report on its examination of some proposed spending because the information arrived too late — and the session clock ran out.
Within this report is the aforementioned suggestion that the Parliamentary Budget Officer might be made a full officer of Parliament. Tony Clement praised this report in June and Dean quotes Conservative MP Mike Wallace, who has previously called for estimates reform (see here and here).
By Aaron Wherry - Monday, June 25, 2012 at 9:45 AM - 0 Comments
Kevin Page talks to the West Block.
Tom Clark: Your term runs until March of next year. You can be fired before then. That brings up an interesting question, why hasn’t the prime minister fired so far? You’ve drawn the wrath and ire of his ministers.
Kevin Page: Well I think our work you know for the most…has been of relatively high quality and I think people they see that we actually are doing our job. So, you know if I was to get fired and I do work at pleasure of the prime minister and if it was for doing our job, for doing our job, I wouldn’t be upset personally if that was the case. But again, we are doing our job. This is what the government wanted when they were in opposition and I think you know there was a lot of political support for us over the course of this week in the House of Commons. And I get emails, literally hundreds of emails since we released legal opinion on Monday from Canadians who are concerned about it so again, if we don’t have public engagement on this issue, if there is just disengagement or cynicism then I think we all suffer.
In the latest issue of Canadian Parliamentary Review, the editors reprint Mr. Page’s opening statement to the government operations and estimates committee on the topic of reforming the estimates review process.
One of the key principles underlying responsible parliamentary government is that the House of Commons holds the “power of the purse”. The House must be able to satisfy itself, as the confidence chamber, that all spending and taxation is consistent with legislation, Parliament›s intentions, and the principles of parliamentary control. When this is accomplished, Parliament is serving Canadians. In my view, this is rarely accomplished.
By Aaron Wherry - Friday, April 13, 2012 at 3:31 PM - 0 Comments
John McCallum lays out four ideas for fixing the way Parliament reviews and approves the government’s expenditures.
To anyone who spends a good deal of time studying the government’s supply documents it has become painfully clear that this system has not kept pace with the size and scope of our government, nor the increased demand from the public for accountability and transparency. If Parliamentarians are to overcome this then we will have to work together to design a new method for scrutinizing the government’s expenditure plan. Modernizing Parliament’s expenditure review and approval is a two-tract process: first, the rules under which the government’s expenditure plan is approved must be changed in order to produce a more effective review. In addition, the very format of the government’s expenditure plan must be revamped. The estimates documents we currently rely on were designed in the 19th century to convey information about 19th century government. Modernization of these documents must account for both the expanded role of government and the new technology available to MPs, the media and to the public. We cannot risk the House of Commons abandoning its most basic role as the manager of the public purse.
This is a long-standing problem that even one government backbencher has lamented in recent months.
By Aaron Wherry - Tuesday, December 6, 2011 at 10:14 AM - 2 Comments
MPs on all sides admit Parliament is failing at one of its primary tasks.
Parliament passes appropriations bills worth billions of dollars without giving them enough scrutiny, say government backbenchers and opposition MPs. “I consider this one of the greatest weaknesses in Parliament. The estimates are tremendously important and deserve a phenomenal amount of scrutiny. This does not happen,” said Conservative MP Daryl Kramp …
This round of supplementary estimates lists $6.6-billion in spending across 68 government departments. Since being tabled Nov. 3, the estimates have been examined in 21 House committee meetings as of Dec. 5, but MPs say it’s a cursory glance. The government spent $270-billion in 2010-2011. “It seems to be treated as a housekeeping issue rather than a serious financial responsibility,” said Mr. Kramp, who is vice-chair of the Public Accounts Committee, and has also sat on the Government Operations and Estimates Committee.
By Aaron Wherry - Wednesday, June 15, 2011 at 3:03 PM - 33 Comments
The hunt for the government’s mysterious cuts—as initiated by our Paul Wells—continues. Bill Curry finds $45-million taken from the Green Infrastructure Fund. Meanwhile, Tim Naumetz reviews the main estimates.
Almost all of the government’s security and public safety programs are increasing either modestly or substantially, including a 21 per cent hike in spending for the Correctional Service to $2.98-billion. The Canada Border Services Agency is receiving a 14 per cent increase, to $1.84-billion, and the Office of the Correctional Investigator, responsible for hearing complaints from offenders, is going up by 21 per cent, to $4.3-million.
But spending by the Department of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness is being reduced by 5.9 per cent to $414.6-million … The National Research Council will have its spending cut by 7.8 per cent to $690,836,000. Spending by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission is set to drop by 10 per cent to $118,264,000 … The Hazardous Materials Information Review Commission is targeted for a 20 per-cent reduction in its spending, to $4.5-million from $4.7-million. Among the other agencies where cuts are planned, the Public Health Agency of Canada is set to have its spending cut by 8.2 per cent to $622-million.