OTTAWA - 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Members of Parliament receive conflicting, outdated information about how billions of tax dollars are being spent each year, and get little opportunity to review fiscal plans.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.
Those are some of the findings in a Commons report released without fanfare this month, even as opposition MPs railed against the Harper government for ramming through its omnibus budget bill without proper study.
The new report, from the all-party government operations committee, argues the federal budget arrives too late each year — and says the government should instead table it by Feb. 1 annually.
The committee also says MPs should consider whether to give the parliamentary budget officer, a thorn in the side of the Harper government, more status and power to deliver essential financial data to parliamentarians.
"Parliament does not effectively fulfil its role and standing committees are at best giving perfunctory attention to the government's spending plans," says the 62-page document.
The report by the 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, a responsibility that can be traced back to the Magna Carta of 1215.
"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, setting out spending plans for the fiscal year beginning April 1. 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.
So-called "supplementary estimates," which contain new or revised spending information later in the year to reflect unforeseen changes in the economy or in government priorities, normally appear after the budget has been tabled.
But because of arcane House rules, these supplementary documents often escape the proper scrutiny of committees — as happened this spring when the clock ran down on the session before a single committee could finish its work.
All of the supplementary estimates were simply "deemed" to have been scrutinized, under long-standing parliamentary procedures designed to prevent any committee from holding up government business.
The new report says the rules should be rewritten to ensure committees spend at least two full weeks reviewing these supplementary spending blueprints.
Committee members also want to review the role of the parliamentary budget officer with a view to possibly upgrading his status to a full officer of Parliament, with stronger powers.
The current officer, Kevin Page, has frequently complained that departments rebuff his requests for key financial information with impunity. In minority reports, both NDP and Liberal committee members simply want the job upgraded, without the need for further study. Page now is an employee of the Library of Parliament.
MP Mike Wallace, the Tory vice-chair of the committee, notes that existing procedures date back decades, and must be fixed to help parliamentarians do their jobs.
"We want some change," he said in an interview. "We will be keeping the government's ... feet to the fire on it to see if we can implement some of these changes."
The report asks for government responses on 16 recommendations by March 31 next year.
Ned Franks, a retired Queen's University professor and expert on parliamentary affairs, applauded the committee's effort to rewrite rules that block it from properly scrutinizing spending.
"They're going in the right direction," he said in an interview.
"It's really unfortunate because the estimates are one of the most important documents that the government tables in Parliament. And to be polite about it, the parliamentary scrutiny of the estimates has been pretty spotty."
Franks also supports giving the parliamentary budget officer more power.
"The committees in my view need every help they can get, and I think the parliamentary budget officer is a great innovation."
But he argues the committee should go farther. Current rules forbid parliamentarians from demanding spending higher than proposed in the estimates, and any effort to reduce proposed spending can be construed as a vote of non-confidence, possibly triggering an election.
Franks would like to see those rules relaxed so MPs can deliver substantive reports, rather than having a "feast but no utensils to eat it with."
McCallum says that even with the restrictions Franks cites, better information about spending plans would allow committees to call witnesses to testify about the impact of cuts or changes.
"Even though we couldn't change (the estimates), we could bring a light to bear on what they were going to do," he said. "We'd be a whole lot further ahead."
On the web, the committee report: www.parl.gc.ca/HousePublications/Publication.aspx?DocId=5690996&Language=E&Mode=1&Parl=41&Ses=1
The Huffington Post Canada's <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/althia-raj/" target="_hplink">Ottawa Bureau Chief Althia Raj</a> lists the MPs who stumbled during the Parliamentary session. (CP)
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2011/11/25/rob-anders-sleeping-video_n_1113337.html" target="_hplink">Anders said a car accident was to blame after video of the Calgary MP sleeping</a> in the House of Commons went viral. Then he was accused of falling asleep again, this time during a Veterans Affairs committee meeting. Instead of apologizing to the veterans he'd greeted with a snore, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/03/06/rob-anders-sleep-video-apology_n_1324139.html" target="_hplink">Anders accused them of being NDP hacks</a>. They said they were card-carrying Conservatives. Anders apologized soon after, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/03/28/rob-anders-tory-mp-veterans-affairs_n_1386484.html" target="_hplink">but he was booted from the committee</a>. (CP)
Dean Del Mastro
If he hadn't been so <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/03/16/rocobocalls-scandal-dean-del-mastro_n_1354739.html?utm_hp_ref=robocalls-scandal" target="_hplink">sanctimonious</a> about the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/news/robocalls-scandal" target="_hplink">robocalls scandal</a>, Canadians might feel a bit sorry for the guy. In court documents, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/news/dean-del-mastro" target="_hplink">Elections Canada seems to suggest Del Mastro committed electoral fraud</a> by over-contributing to his campaign by writing a personal $21,000 cheque for, you guessed it, robocalls. It is alleged his campaign overspent it's allowed limit and tried to hide it. Del Mastro initially appeared genuinely shocked by the allegations but more than two weeks later, as more evidence mounts, he still can't provide <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/06/11/dean-del-mastro-spending-election_n_1587236.html?utm_hp_ref=robocalls-scandal" target="_hplink">answers</a>. (CP)
This NDP MP from Montmorency--Charlevoix--Haute-Côte-Nord <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/04/30/marc-garneau-mail-stolen-jonathan-tremblay_n_1465618.html" target="_hplink">opened mail marked for Liberal MP Marc Garneau</a> and then kept the contents, toy spaceships, for his own purposes. Seriously, he stole mail. And what was with that rat-tail? (Handout)
This minister needs to tone down the rhetoric. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/05/01/peter-kent-charities-laundering_n_1469641.html" target="_hplink">Accusing charities of laundering money</a> is not only a criminal allegation, it doesn't help his argument. Why doesn't Kent come up with rational reasons to justify the government's actions on the environment? It's one of the reasons no one believes the Conservatives care about the file. (CP)
It isn't the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2011/12/15/peter-mackay-hotel-expense-munich-istanbul_n_1151049.html" target="_hplink">expensive hotels</a> but the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/news/f-35" target="_hplink">F-35 procurement fiasco</a> that really lands this minister in hot water. Did MacKay allow officials to sneak something past him without appropriate scrutiny? Did he knowingly mislead Canadians about the cost of the fighter jets? This minister needs to take control of his department. (CP)
The loose-lipped New Democrat from Winnipeg not only dropped a few <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2011/11/17/pat-martin-twitter-swearing_n_1099126.html" target="_hplink">F-bombs</a> on <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/03/17/pat-martin-twitter-tweet-stephen-gordon_n_1355308.html" target="_hplink">Twitter </a>this year but was also too quick with his vocal criticism of the robocalls scandal. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/06/08/racknine-lawsuit-pat-martin_n_1582347.html" target="_hplink">Now he finds himself the subject of a $5 million lawsuit that won't go away</a>, no matter <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/04/16/pat-martin-apology-racknine_n_1428508.html" target="_hplink">how many times he apologizes</a>. (CP)
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/04/23/bev-oda-savoy-hotel_n_1444818.html" target="_hplink">$16 orange juice</a>. Hundreds more for fancier hotels. Thousands more for limousines. She's the minister in charge of helping starving children. Need we say more? (CP)
First the Public Minister said Canadians who opposed the government's desire to spy on the public whenever it wishes<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/02/16/vic-toews-youtube-vikileaks-twitter_n_1281633.html?utm_hp_ref=vic-toews" target="_hplink"> were standing with child pornographers</a>. Then, in a radio interview, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/02/20/vic-toews-lawful-access-bill-c-30_n_1288252.html?utm_hp_ref=vic-toews" target="_hplink">he appeared to have little knowledge of what his bill actually contained</a>. His comments created an uproar and the bill has been shelved -- <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/05/16/bill-c-30-lawful-access-online-surveillance-vic-toews_n_1521477.html?utm_hp_ref=vic-toews" target="_hplink">for now</a>. This week, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/06/19/canada-border-audio-monitoring-listening_n_1609093.html?utm_hp_ref=vic-toews" target="_hplink">Toews also had to back down from a CBSA plan to spy on travellers in Canadian airports</a>. The government now plans to talk about its proposal with the Privacy Commissioner before moving forward. (CP)
This rookie MP from Saint-Maurice--Champlain <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/01/10/lise-st-denis-ndp-join-liberals_n_1196406.html" target="_hplink">announced in January that she was switching parties and joining the Liberals</a> after spending ten years volunteering with the NDP. She told reporters she ran for the New Democrats but never expected to be elected and infamously declared, in one of the year's least tactful comments: "They voted for Jack Layton. Jack Layton died." St-Denis said she didn't want to spend three years listening to a party defend policies she disagreed with. She pointed to the NDP opposing the mission extension in Libya, opposing public-private partnership for large-scale infrastructure deals and its desire to abolish the Senate. We can only ask, did St-Denis read any of the NDP's policies during her 10 years as a volunteer? We're not sure the Liberals got the best of the batch here... (CP)
This <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/05/23/david-wilks-budget-bill-c-38_n_1540471.html" target="_hplink">B.C. MP from Kootenay--Columbia told his constituents he agreed with them that there were problems with Bill C-38</a>, the Tories' omnibus budget legislation, and said he was prepared to oppose it if other Conservatives joined him. But as soon as the story, and his comments, hit the Web, Wilks did a complete 180, saying he supported the Conservative government's budget bill. Although <a href="http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/inside-politics-blog/2012/06/david-wilks-still-towing-line-on-budget-bill.html" target="_hplink">he recently told CBC's Julie Van Dusen that after reading the bill he now thinks the legislation is "great for Canada,"</a> we think he either misled his constituents or sold them out after being disciplined by the Prime Minister's Office. (Handout)
Best MPs Of The Session
The Huffington Post Canada's <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/althia-raj/" target="_hplink">Ottawa Bureau Chief Althia Raj</a> lists the MPs who deserve credit for strong performances during the Parliamentary session. (CP)
The Edmonton MP and Public Works Minister didn't have an easy time as environment minister a few years back but now <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/06/19/rona-ambrose-public-works_n_1609668.html?utm_hp_ref=canada-politics" target="_hplink">everything Ambrose touches seems to come out smoothly</a> -- at least, that's what the government hopes. After successfully managing a $33-billion shipbuilding contract that didn't split the country apart, she's now entrusted with ensuring another billion-dollar procurement, the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/news/f-35" target="_hplink">bungled F-35 jet deal</a> (through the <a href="http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/story/2012/05/02/pol-f-35-secretariat-name-change.html" target="_hplink">national fighter procurement secretariat</a>), goes smoothly and fairly. (CP)
The NDP MP for Timmins--James Bay <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/charlie-angus/attawapiskat-emergency_b_1104370.html" target="_hplink">drew international attention to the plight of the Attawapiskat First Nation in his northern Ontario riding after writing a blog about it on The Huffington Post Canada</a> this fall. The blog and the public pressure it garnered forced the federal government to take action on a situation it had largely ignored. (CP)
The former NDP leadership contender may have lost the <a href="http://huffingtonpost.ca/news/ndp-leadership-race" target="_hplink">leadership race</a> but he earned a lot of respect. His willingness to reach across party lines and work with Liberals may come in handy later on. Watch for him now in his more visible role as NDP house leader. (CP)
After two minority governments, the prime minister is now taking the long view on Canada's future. While he tends to appear more statesmanlike abroad than at home, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/01/26/harper-davos-immigration-ottawa_n_1233664.html" target="_hplink">his speech in Davos this January signalled his willingness to make tough decisions to ensure long-term economic growth</a>. Harper's suggestions: pension reform, new free trade deals, more intense development of Canada's natural resources, lower health care spending and major immigration reforms. (CP)
He may have taken his lumps for <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/06/19/kenney-hits-reply-all-_n_1609294.html" target="_hplink">calling the deputy premier of Alberta an "asshole,"</a> but one thing we appreciate about Kenney is that he says what he thinks and doesn't mince words. He maintains a delicate balance between currying favours with immigrants and <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/04/22/bill-c-31-human-smuggling-canada-refugees-jason-kenney_n_1444267.html?utm_hp_ref=jason-kenney" target="_hplink">taking a hard line on would-be refugees</a>. While it may appear the hard-working MP sometimes lacks compassion, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/04/17/jason-kenney-huffington-post-canada-immigration_n_1432940.html?utm_hp_ref=jason-kenney" target="_hplink">his focus on ensuring immigrants serve Canada (rather than the other way around) is good for the economy</a> and should help new immigrants by giving them easier access to quality jobs. (CP)
Megan Leslie & Michelle Rempel
The NDP's environment critic and the environment minister's parliamentary secretary are two smart women who make question period worth watching. Leslie, left, asks intelligent questions and has a knack for baiting her older Conservative colleagues into saying something stupid. Rempel has outshone her minister, Peter Kent by managing to deflect opposition attacks in clever ways without ever putting her foot in her mouth. These are two rising stars. (CP)
The Green Party Leader has shown what one MP can do with a team of volunteers and a lot of heart. Canadians with any knowledge of<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/news/canada-budget-2012" target="_hplink"> C-38, the Conservative omnibus budget</a>, likely have May to thank. May has been ferocious in her attacks on the bundled bill and her ability to work with opposition parties resulted in the<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/06/14/bill-c-38-omnibus-budget-amendments-twitter_n_1597755.html" target="_hplink"> longest series of marathon votes Canadians have seen in a long time</a>. (CP)
It's always difficult for politicians to put their personal ambitions aside. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/06/13/bob-rae-liberal-leadership-run-off_n_1593269.html" target="_hplink">In stepping away from the Liberal leadership race, Rae took another one for the team</a>. Highly regarded by colleagues in and out of his party, he's an effective communicator who kept the Liberals alive in the Commons despite third place status. (CP)
Not only did the Liberal MP for Papineau shame Conservatives across the country when he <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/news/justin-trudeau-boxing" target="_hplink">pummeled Tory Sen. Patrick Brazeau in a nationally televised boxing match</a>, but he re-energized Liberals into believing former goals were possible. Trudeau doesn't yet have the experience, but he's smarter than many people give him credit for and <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/06/20/liberal-leadership-justin-trudeau_n_1613739.html?utm_hp_ref=justin-trudeau" target="_hplink">he could cause the NDP headaches if he decides to throw his hat in the leadership ring</a>. (CP)
Quiet and unassuming, the rookie NDP MP from Aylmer, Que., was thrown into a leadership role she didn't want last August and steered the official opposition through months of difficult polling and stories about her ineffective leadership. Turmel doesn't get enough credit for keeping the NDP caucus (mostly) together after the death of Jack Layton and through the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/news/ndp-leadership-race" target="_hplink">subsequent leadership race</a>. (CP)