Hon. Joseph A. Day:
Honourable senators, I would like to go on record with respect to this particular bill. My remarks won’t be long. I have been involved with finance matters for some time and it seemed strange to see the appropriation bill going through without having an opportunity to comment.
Senator Mockler is doing a fine job chairing the committee. I’ve had an opportunity to attend a number of meetings and I was in the chamber at second reading and to hear the report of the committee as well. I also feel that Senator Marshall’s recent comments were very apropos. I’m glad to see that the committee is in good hands and working well.
Honourable senators will note that this bill received second reading yesterday and today we’re at third reading stage without the measure having gone to committee. That’s the usual process with respect to appropriation or supply bills because we already studied the estimates that back the document up. It is something very peculiar to the supply process, and it takes us a while to figure out these different rules with respect to two different processes.
As everyone knows, my work here will attest to the fact that I have long spoken about the budgets, supply bills and the estimate process. They are all inextricably linked and essential documents for parliamentary oversight of government spending. That’s parliamentary oversight, as you heard Senator Cools mention the three elements of Parliament. This includes the Senate as one of the three elements. It is important that we have proper tools to provide for that oversight of government spending and proposed spending. When each one of these items — that is, the estimate process, the budget itself, budget implementation and the supply bills or appropriation if you will — come along, they are just a different name for the same process. We have to consider them all together so we can understand what the government is proposing and so we can provide the scrutiny that’s intended of us.
Sometimes it’s difficult to consider all of these items together. This supply bill, Bill C-80, calls for spending of more than $82 billion. That’s a lot of change that we’re being asked to approve. I always want to make sure that we have speeches on this rather than what you see happening in the House of Commons, namely, “deemed to have been studied, deemed to have been read and deemed to have been adopted.” When we’re spending that much money we can take the time to look at it. I know that that’s the philosophy of the Finance Committee and I thank the members of that committee for continuing that fine tradition of the Senate.
The Main Estimates for 2018 are more than 330 pages long — 330 pages of charts and lists of different things. The parallel budget implementation act that we considered a few days ago, Bill C-74, was an omnibus bill of 556 pages. I won’t give you my favourite speech on omnibus bills at this stage but we always have to be careful about omnibus bills. There are so many different items in there that if we could restrict it to finance and then let us deal with a general omnibus bill for other all non-finance matters, that would make matters of scrutiny go so much better. There is a lot going on and senators need to be cognizant of their role in scrutinizing that spending.
While there is much to be studied, the government has undertaken, hopefully — and I will give the government the benefit of the doubt — to make our role of scrutiny and scrutinizing of those various elements somewhat simpler. The reform of the estimates began over two years ago with the Treasury Board proposing changes, which included delaying the tabling of the Main Estimates to not later than May 1 so that they better align with the budget. The plan is to try to bring the budget out and then the Main Estimates and budget implementation would follow. Previously, we would get Main Estimates almost coincidentally with the budgets — sometimes before; sometimes after — and the Main Estimates didn’t reflect anything in the budget. It was almost like zero-based budgeting or take a look at what we spent last year and put that in and then we’ll adjust later on in other estimates processes. That would be Supplementary Estimates (A), (B), and (C).
The Treasury Board, in attempting to make this change, has devised, I hope, an interim vote 40, which concerns me somewhat. Last June, the House of Commons adopted a motion to do what I just explained, namely, to try to align the estimates better with the budget itself.
In the future, if this process is expected to allow parliamentarians to provide better oversight of government spending. This year, during this transition period, the government has tabled interim estimates to ensure that the government has sufficient funding to begin the new fiscal year.
On February 12 of this year, when the President of the Treasury Board, the Honourable Scott Brison, tabled these interim estimates, he was quoted in a news release as follows:
We are committed to making sure parliamentarians have the information they need to do their jobs effectively. By adjusting the timing of the Main Estimates so they follow the federal Budget, we are providing parliamentarians and Canadians with a clear line of sight as they review government spending.
I applaud these efforts. As chair of the National Finance Committee for more than 15 years, I recognize first-hand the difficulties in reconciling the estimates to the budget. I recognize the challenge that is there, and I compliment the government on attempting to meet that challenge.
In the past, the Main Estimates did not including budget initiatives, as I’ve mentioned. These would end up in supplementary estimates or, as Senator Marshall rightly pointed out yesterday, sometimes in estimates of future subsequent years. We should even find budget initiatives and the money to do the initiative coming two or three years afterward.
So the process is being reformed and the Main Estimates were thus delayed this year ostensibly to include measures announced in the budget. Here we are now debating the supply bill that goes with those Main Estimates. But we haven’t quite gotten what we were expecting. There was a bit of a surprise in that there is included in this bill a vote 40, which provides for more than $7 billion in budget initiatives that have not been through the normal Treasury Board scrutiny process.
The departments or other organizations, along with their individual amount, are listed in Annex A of the Main Estimate documents. If you look in your Main Estimates, you will see a list of details accompanying the various departments.
Senator Mockler, in his remarks on the National Finance Committee’s report on the Main Estimates, had this to say:
The committee would like you to be fully aware that the government added a vote in this bill before you today, vote 40, which will effectively allow them to bypass parliamentary approval for the coming year. In addition, the government has removed the internal controls on this $7 billion.
Normally, requests would go through a rigorous Treasury Board submission process prior to presentation to cabinet. These funds will be decided by cabinet alone —
— the expenditure —
— and the executive branch taking power of financial decisions alone — a point that I and others find to be quite troubling for all Canadians from coast to coast to coast.
Senator Marshall, in her remarks, stressed much the same thing. The committee report itself states that the Parliamentary Budget Officer noted the wording of the vote — each of the line items is referred to as a vote — vote 40, this new one, does not even oblige the government to spend the funds as outlined in the annex.
While I do not subscribe to the hyperbole that emerged in the other place, I am, nevertheless, concerned, and I share the concerns of Senator Marshall and Senator Mockler.
I’ve said it before, and I will continue to say, we have to be careful about changes that affect parliamentary oversight. We’ve got to make sure that parliamentary oversight continues, and where we find some difficulties, make changes, yes, but changes that help to improve our oversight. A negative change is one of the reasons why I introduced Bill S-246, An Act to amend the Borrowing Authority Act — it’s still on the Order Paper; I was hoping to get to it last evening, but we didn’t make it — to bring back Parliament’s authority over government borrowing.
We missed the government’s tiny change in a past omnibus budget bill, and 10 years later, we’re still trying to correct the damage that was done in allowing the government to borrow without coming to Parliament to get authority to borrow.
Proper parliamentary oversight is vital and a power that we cannot take for granted. I can assure all senators that I will be watching — Senator Mockler and Senator Marshall have also indicated they will be watching — and guarding against any weakening of our rights and our ability to scrutinize government spending. I thank you and the Finance Committee for doing that.
I urge honourable senators to support this legislation, with that caveat.