Members of Parliament receive conflicting, outdated information about how billions of tax dollars are being spent each year, and get little opportunity to review fiscal plans. Those are some of the findings in a Commons report released without fanfare recently, even as opposition MPs railed against the Harper government for ramming through its omnibus budget bill without proper study.
The recent report STRENGTHENING PARLIAMENTARY SCRUTINY OF ESTIMATES AND SUPPLY, from the all-party government operations committee, chaired by New Democrat MP Pat Martin, is a non-partisan acknowledgment that parliamentarians are increasingly hogtied in their ability to review and approve government spending. "We don't do a very effective job," vice-chair John McCallum, a Liberal MP, said in an interview. "There's a fundamental deficiency of information."
One of the biggest beefs in the report refers to rules surrounding the so-called "estimates," the government's detailed spending blueprints that are supposed to put meat on the bones of the annual federal budget. The "main estimates" are released by March each year but they take no account of the federal budget, which is typically released about the same time and can significantly affect spending. The committee says the budget should be tabled no later than Feb. 1 so the two documents can finally align, giving politicians a fuller and more consistent picture.
Standing committees, as extensions of the House, play an important role in reviewing and scrutinizing the government’s spending plans in order for Parliament to approve it. The committees are expected to perform detailed scrutiny of government spending and performance. However, it has long been acknowledged that Parliament does not effectively fulfill its role and standing committees are at best giving perfunctory attention to the government’s spending plans.
As dissatisfaction with Parliament’s role in the scrutiny of government spending still remains, both among observers and among many members of Parliament, the Committee began a study in January 2012 on the process for considering the estimates and supply in the hope of addressing some of the barriers that serve to inhibit parliamentary scrutiny of the estimates.
In the Conclusion the report further underlines the need for better scrutiny of the governments figures:-
Over the past few months, the Committee has heard considerable testimony from former parliamentarians, knowledgeable observers, academics, departmental officials, and officials from other jurisdictions. The Committee appreciates the time and effort these individuals took to prepare their presentations to the Committee, and their many useful ideas and suggestions on how to improve parliamentary review and scrutiny of the government’s spending plans, as outlined in the estimates. While it has not been possible to incorporate every suggestion into this report, the Committee carefully considered all of the testimony before it and chose to make recommendations in the areas that would be the most effective.
The Committee recognizes that there has never been a golden age of estimates review and that the Westminster parliamentary system comes with certain limitations on parliamentary involvement in the budgetary process, e.g., that budgets are set by the government and not Parliament, that budgetary votes are matters of confidence in the government, and that members of Parliament have many demands on their time and expectations to fulfill. Nonetheless, the Committee believes that the scrutiny and approval of the government’s spending plans is one of the fundamental roles of Parliament, and that there are a variety of ways that the parliamentary processes, estimates information, and capacity available to members can be improved.
The Committee believes that standing committees should be required to examine the estimates referred to them, and that they should have sufficient time to do so. The effectiveness of their hearings on the estimates could be improved by providing questions to officials in advance. The ability of parliamentarians to use and understand estimates information would be improved if the vote structure was based on program activities instead of operating and capital expenditures, the timing of the budget and the estimates was changed to better align the estimates with the budget, the reports on plans and priorities were presented at the same time as the estimates, tax expenditures were included in the reports on plans and priorities, and statutory expenditures were evaluated periodically. The capacity of parliamentarians to review the estimates would be improved with an online, searchable database, by reviewing the mandate of the Parliamentary Budget Officer in order to better serve members of Parliament in their examination of the estimates, and by standing committees having briefing sessions on their role in the estimates process and how to understand and interpret estimates documents.
The Committee believes that these changes are modest, feasible and should make a noticeable improvement in the quantity and quality of estimates review by standing committees. Nonetheless, the Committee intends to follow-up on this report in order to ensure that the government has made progress in implementing the recommendations directed to it, and that standing committees are fulfilling their responsibilities in holding the government to account for economical, efficient, and effective use of public funds.
These same concerns also show up in their Recommendations of which I will highlight just a few with a brief commentary:-
Why would they not? Without such information such fiscal plans and reports are all but usless!
The current way of 'fiddling' the books relys upon hiding expenditures in various obscure departments or programs, re-announcing expenditures already budgeted and other 'spin doctoring'. This is no less confusing for or MPs in committee than for the general public.
RECOMMENDATION 9:That as part of its amendments to the Standing Orders, the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs examine the feasibility of providing standing committees at least two sitting weeks to consider and report on the supplementary estimates, and that the Committee report to the House on its study no later than March 31, 2013.
They don’t take 2 weeks or more now? These are a major part of the government expenditure process and quite obviously lengthy and complex 'estimates' and our parliamentary system must allow for time to fully understand the documents and not simply rubber stamp them without due consideration.
RECOMMENDATION 15:That the House of Commons give its Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates the mandate to undertake a study of the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer which would include a thorough analysis of the mandate and function of the Office in order to better serve members of Parliament; and that in its study, the Committee should consider all structural models for the Office including, but not limited to, the Parliamentary Budget Officer reporting directly to Parliament as an Officer of Parliament.
We wonder if the Harper Regime will take this to mean that the PBO should NOT report also to the general public as he has been (much to the objections of said regime) or otherwise limit public scrutiny of government expenditures.
RECOMMENDATION 16:That the government develop a searchable online database that contains information on departmental spending by type of expense and by program.
Once again, why is there not? Only one reason exists, the need to hide what is going on, who is spending what and where. At the very least ALL parliamentarians need this information at their fingertips but to my mind it should read “That the government develop a PUBLIC searchable online database” just to be clear what is really needed.
One more final thought, these are 'recommendations' to 'parliament' where the Harper regime holds a majority and they like it just fine if they can spin and hide behind such loopholes in the 'standing rules' so don’t expect any of these 'recommendations' to take hold any time soon. Except perhaps that bit about the PBO only reporting to parliament or the 'government'.