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Feds’ plan to change budget process riles opposition

NDP MP Daniel Blaikie says there is 'nothing for Parliament' in the first step of the estimates reform process.

Treasury Board President Scott Brison has proposed several changes that he argued would improve the estimates received by Parliamentarians by better reflecting the figures seen in the budget, though some opposition MPs worry that the changes would cut into the time available to scrutinize the information. The Hill Times photographs by Jake Wright

By MARCO VIGLIOTTI

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016 12:00 AM

Opposition MPs are expressing concern over the Liberal government’s planned overhaul of the budget estimates process, saying promised changes could curb the amount of time available to scrutinize important data.

The Liberals have been discussing plans to improve the financial planning framework for the government by better aligning the main estimates, which establish departmental budgets for the upcoming fiscal year, and the federal budget.

Conservative MP Tom Lukiwski (Moose Jaw-Lake Centre-Lanigan, Sask.), chair of the House Government Operations and Estimates Committee, said he believes all committee members are supportive of improvements to the budget process, but there is some discomfort about the new schedule proposed by the government for the tabling of the estimates.

“Some members of the committee expressed a little bit of concern that if the standing orders were changed to allow the estimates not to be tabled until May 1, that could potentially pose a problem by not allowing committees enough time to call respective ministers before them to question the ministers on the estimates,” he said in an interview.

  

As chair, he said he doesn’t take a position on matters before the committee, and leaves that to the members themselves.

Treasury Board President Scott Brison (Kings-Hants, N.S.) has proposed several changes that he argued would improve the estimates received by Parliamentarians by better reflecting the figures seen in the budget.

Currently, budget estimates are required by Parliament’s standing orders to be tabled by March 1, which often means preparations begin well in advance of the delivery of the budget, typically seen near the end of March.

For example, the spending estimates received by MPs last year were delivered in late February, based on “status-quo” calculations that concluded in January, according to reporting by CBC News. The budget was tabled in the House on March 22.

  

Furthermore, appropriation acts or supply bills, which approve spending, typically receive scarce scrutiny because of the dated estimates numbers.

Typically only a fraction of any department’s operating budget is approved for the start of the new fiscal year on April 1, while the rest of the main estimates are approved by summer.

In the meantime, parliamentary committees are supposed to scrutinize the data by studying the figures and calling witnesses, such as cabinet ministers and public officials, to explain, and, when necessary, defend the numbers. But these reviews are based on estimates that pre-date the budget, causing some committees to just skip the entire process, reports the CBC.

Mr. Brison has proposed amending the standing orders so that the main estimates can be tabled by May 1, arguing that it will prevent Parliamentarians from wasting their time scrutinizing dated figures that no longer reflect the government’s finances. The extended scheduled would allow federal bureaucrats to update the estimates with information found in the budget, which is typically tabled near the end of March. 

  

This new schedule would “ensure substantial portions of the budget are reflected in the main estimates,” Mr. Brison told a meeting on the House Government Operations and Estimates Committee on Nov. 3.

“This approach will ensure that the main estimates will be, starting this year, a more useful and relevant document, because they will reflect this year’s budget priorities, and prevent the situation we have now, where the main estimates are debated for several weeks, and are rendered basically irrelevant when the actual budget is tabled.”

He also said the government is committed to having all cabinet members appear before committee to defend their estimates, calling it a crucial part of ensuring transparency and holding government to account.

However, NDP MP Daniel Blaikie (Elmwood-Transcona, Man.), a member of the operations and estimates committee, expressed worry about how the most consequential reforms to the estimates process would only come after the government moves to slash the time available to analyze important fiscal data.

“The challenge is that the first step they have proposed really amounts to just providing less time for members of Parliament to scrutinize the main estimates. The rest of the reform package that would go with that, and give that change meaning, [is] not part of that first step,” he told The Hill Times.

He likened the experience to the former Conservative government’s push to change access to information laws, which was supposed to be a two-step process that would usher in consequential reforms. But while there were some initial changes, the second phase of the government’s plan never came to fruition, he said.

“The problem is that there is nothing for Parliament in this first step, except hopefully a better estimates document. But that’s not a guarantee, and along with it is significantly less time to scrutinize it,” said Mr. Blaikie, who called on the Liberals to set a firm period for the estimates to be released.

“If they don’t get around to step two before the next election, and the government changes, then we have no accountability.”

He also called on the government to solidify the commitment for cabinet ministers to appear before committees, saying as it stands now, it’s nothing but a promise from Mr. Brison that might not hold up if he was replaced, and hoisted no obligation on a new government.

“That assurance doesn’t go past Mr. Brison being the minster responsible for the Treasury Board. He didn’t say that he was willing to give any guarantee that’s backed up by anything other than his personal word,” he said.

“When you talk about changing long-standing processes in Parliament, you can’t just do it thinking of the government of the day. You have to think about how this will play out in other scenarios with other ministers and other governments.”

He added that short of a commitment by government to either guaranteeing a date or period for the main estimates, or guaranteeing in some more forceful way the accessibility of ministers to the committees, the government is “really asking everyone to just take a leap of faith.”

Mr. Lukiwski mused that the timetable proposed by the government could effectively stifle opposition scrutiny of the estimates.

This is because the government could ensure that all the allotted or supply days were completed before the estimates were tabled May 1, he said.

The parliamentary standing orders provide members with a wide scope in proposing opposition motions on the 22 supply days, sitting days in which the opposition chooses the subject of debate. Opposition motions also take precedence over all government supply motions on supply days.

In a nod to concerns about the tighter timeline, Mr. Brison told the committee he’s proposing the May 1 deadline for only the first two budget cycles, to allow departments and agencies to adjust to the new schedule, describing it as a “significant, substantial change” that “will take time to operationalize.”

In the third year, a permanent change would occur that would allow the estimates, to be available by March 31, before the start of a new fiscal year, complete with information from the budget, he said.

Mr. Brison acknowledged hearing concerns about how the tighter timeline could cut into the time allotted for study of the estimates, but said that it was not the intention of the government.

“We want Parliamentarians to be able to study documents that will be substantially more meaningful than those Parliament is provided with today,” he argued.

“This is an approach that will provide the best balance between parliamentary study of the mains, and making the mains a vasty more useful and pertinent document.”

The operations and estimates committee will likely bring in more witnesses to discuss the changes proposed by Mr. Brison, including potentially asking the Treasury Board president to appear again, Mr. Lukiwski said.

The steering committee on agenda will meet on Monday afternoon to discuss future meetings, and whether to continue studying the proposed reforms to the estimates process, he said.

However, Mr. Lukiwski explained that the government, if it wanted, could change the standing orders unilaterally by going through the Procedure and House Affairs Committee.

Mr. Brison, though, has indicated that he would like to have the approval of Parliament before making the change, he said.

In addition to reforms to the schedule and ensuring ministers appear before committees, Mr. Brison is promising significant improvements to the information contained in the estimates and departmental budgets.

Specifically, he’s promised to improve accrual planning in departments, reconcile cash appropriations in the estimates, make it easier for MPs to connect the money they vote for with the program it will be used for, and have departments produce better and more informative reports.

mvigliotti@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times