Treasury Board president still 'impatient' to fix how Parliament approves spending

A year ago, Treasury Board President Scott Brison wanted to make 2016 the last year Parliament was asked to approve spending estimates that wouldn't reflect the new budget. Now that's poised to happen again. What happened to his efforts to fix this?

Spending estimates about to be tabled won't reflect this year's budget — just like last year

Treasury Board President Scott Brison wanted to have more reforms in place by now to improve the way Parliament approves government spending. But a key proposal to delay tabling spending estimates until after budget day got bogged down at committee. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

One year after pledging to change the way Parliament reviews and approves government spending, Treasury Board President Scott Brison is still trying to fix the problem.

"It's totally irrational," Brison said this week, as he prepared once again to table a set of main estimates that won't reflect this year's budget. 

"I have a sort of deep-seated understanding of the flaws of the current system."

Brison had hoped 2016 would be the last year the government would table its main spending estimates for all departments and agencies — due by March 1, according to Parliament's rules — only to have some of it become outdated a few weeks later when the finance minister delivers the new budget.

When MPs vote to approve spending estimates — a formality that's necessary to grant the authority for the money to be spent — they're voting on figures that represent the continuation of an outdated status quo, instead of the latest decisions. 

The budget and the estimates don't even use the same accounting system.

"The current process is opaque. It's almost incomprehensible," Brison said. 

But not everyone has embraced his enthusiasm for change.

Brison doesn't understand the reluctance. He believes the changes make it easier for MPs to hold the government to account and force ministers to "be at the top of their game" and defend their department's plans.

"I'm impatient because it's very much the right thing to do," he said. "Sometimes in Parliament there can be an obstructionist instinct that can shove out or shove aside a more constructive approach."

Out of sequence

If the budget came out in January or early February, the estimates could include budget measures and still meet the March 1 deadline.

Five years ago a Commons committee recommended an early, fixed budget date to resolve this.

But the government didn't go for it.

This year's budget date hasn't even been announced. So the main estimates due this week (the Commons takes a break next week) won't reflect the budget. 

Supplementary estimates will be tabled later and MPs will vote then to approve revised amounts. Sometimes these votes are many months after programs were announced. Funds lapse because they can't get out the door on time.

Departments are trying to improve.

The first set of supplementary estimates last spring included two-thirds of the 2016 budget funding.

But 51 measures weren't ready for approval until the second set of supplementary estimates seven months later.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau hasn't announced the date for the 2017 budget yet. The decisions his department is making now won't be reflected in the government spending estimates due by the end of the month. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

A year ago, Brison pointed to how things work in provinces like Ontario and countries like Australia, where processes are better aligned and spending is approved faster.

But his deputy minister, Yaprak Baltacioglu, told the government operations committee last October "it's a little soon for the whole machine to turn that way."

Stalled at committee

It's unclear why Brison's department waited until last fall to circulate a policy paper outlining concrete proposals for reform.

As an interim step, Brison suggested that for at least two years the standing orders of the House of Commons be changed to move the deadline for tabling the estimates back to May 1. That way, when committees called witnesses to review the estimates before voting in June, the figures could reflect the budget.

But ministers can't change standing orders, only the House of Commons does. The proposal bogged down in committee and wasn't approved in time.

"We're working with opposition to get this right, and we have made some progress," Brison said, putting a positive spin on what unfolded at multiple, drawn-out committee appearances. "The timing was the issue."

Some MPs wanted to call witnesses, including parliamentary budget officer Jean-Denis Fréchette. 

A PBO report last November suggested that based on how long it took for the Treasury Board to work through 2016 budget measures, delaying the main estimates by eight weeks might not be enough. 

Fréchette said the 2012 committee recommendation for a fixed budget date is a better idea.

"For me, it's the way to go," he said. Although it wasn't unanimous, it expressed what Parliament wants. 

Changing standing orders is a "huge challenge," he said.

'Fundamental battle'

Brison's other reforms don't require Parliament's permission.

Spending reports are changing. New reconciliation tables now make it easier for MPs to compare budget figures with spending estimates.

But there's a fine balance between offering MPs more useful information and just ... more. Too much for any individual parliamentarian to digest without help, perhaps.

Some spending votes are being reorganized, to link up with programs.

Parliamentary budget officer Jean-Denis Fréchette's office was asked to review the proposed changes to the estimates process. He sounded a few notes of caution and suggested areas where more consideration might help. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Fréchette says MPs like this idea. But if appropriations get too specific, it takes discretion away from public servants and cabinet ministers to move money around as needed.

"If you need parliamentary approval every time you want to shift money, it becomes a very heavy system," Fréchette said, describing this as a "fundamental battle," since MPs are supposed to hold the ultimate responsibility for spending taxpayers' money.

And then there's the possibility that if MPs know more about what they're voting on and don't like it, they might vote it down.

The precedents for this are few and far between, but it is possible. In 2003, MPs voted their displeasure at a large increase in the governor general's budget, for example.

In reality, however, spending votes are confidence votes. If MPs feel frustrated reviewing the estimates, it might stem from their perceived inability to amend anything.

Can Brison's reforms really help then?

"The proof of the pudding is in the eating," Fréchette said. "It's really still to be seen if it's going to be used by Parliament in a good way."


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