Re-examining the estimates and supply process.

Author:Page, Kevin
 
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In February 2012 the Standing Committee on Government Operations undertook a study on the state of Canada's Estimates and Supply process. One of the first witnesses to be called before the Committee was the parliamentary Budget Officer. The following is his opening presentation. For the full transcript see the meeting of the Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates, February 29, 2012.

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The time is right for substantive change. The context for change is both institutional and fiscal. From an institutional vantage point, I agree with Senator Murray who recently described the estimates and supply process as an "empty ritual".

From a fiscal vantage point, as you know, it is anticipated that the governments 2012 budget plan will call for significant and sustained spending restraint. This is an important time to better engage the watchful eye of the legislature to ensure that spending restraint implementation is carried out by the government and public service in a" way that effectively manages fiscal and service-related challenges.

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, Parliaments intentions, and the principles of parliamentary control. When this is accomplished, Parliament is serving Canadians.

In my view, this is rarely accomplished. Parliament is at best only giving perfunctory attention to spending. Are members comfortable to vote on some $104 billion in annual discretionary expenditures, examining $267 billion in total program spending, with about 90 hours of collective effort among parliamentarians and with some departments and agencies seeing no scrutiny whatsoever, as was the case in 2010-11?

Too often, almost as a matter of convention, Parliament is starved of the information necessary to perform its fiduciary responsibilities. How often does Parliament see real decision-supporting financial analysis prepared by public servants on new legislation or procurement? The answer is almost never. Is it possible to hold the government to account without access to decision-supporting financial analysis?

As the Parliamentary Budget Officer, I was very disappointed, as I am sure many of you were, to learn that departments and agencies have been instructed by the Treasury Board Secretariat not to provide Parliament...

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