Scott Brison sets out to stop the budget's March madness

It may not be the sexiest assignment Justin Trudeau handed out to a cabinet minister. But if Scott Brison succeeds in making the federal government's spending process easier to understand, the 2016 budget may mark the end of a facepalm-inducing era.

Treasury Board president to table main spending estimates this week, but they're already out of date

Treasury Board President Scott Brison says even some MPs who have been around a long time have no idea how spending estimates work. At a briefing earlier this month, 78 MPs and a handful of senators turned out to discuss how the system might become more transparent and accountable. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

This week, Treasury Board President Scott Brison will table the new Liberal government's first main spending estimates, laying out the broad strokes of where taxpayers' money goes across all federal departments and agencies.

If you're busy washing your hair that day, don't worry: the numbers are already out of date. 

That's just one of the reasons Brison's department is on a briefing blitz, kicking off efforts to make this 2016 federal budget cycle the last time parliamentarians vote to approve spending that isn't clearly explained.

"Estimates aren't considered to the be the sexiest thing around, but they're incredibly important," Brison said in an interview with CBC News. 

The process has been given "short shrift," but it's "absolutely key to strengthening Parliament" and the role of MPs.

Even some who've been around for a long time don't understand it, he said.

Case in point: the spending estimates MPs receive this week, based on status quo calculations that wrapped in January. 

Meanwhile, new Liberal ministers are busily implementing their mandate letters. In a few weeks, Finance Minister Bill Morneau's first budget will lay out what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government intends to do.

Treasury Board officials may bristle at someone suggesting this week's document is kind of, well, useless. 

But Senator Elizabeth Marshall, a former auditor general from Newfoundland and Labrador, summed it up at a Senate committee briefing earlier this month:

"You started to prepare the estimates way back before you really had a good handle on the direction the new government was going in, so I would think that this year there will be an extra disconnect. Is that right?" she asked officials.

Votes without scrutiny

Once the budget's out, the fiscal facepalms keep coming.

The budget implementation bills MPs vote on don't authorize the government to spend: they change tax laws and regulations. (The previous Conservative government found them handy kitchen sink-type bills for all kinds of moves.)

Appropriation acts (or "supply bills") greenlight spending. A fraction of a department's operating budget is approved for the start of the new fiscal year (April 1). The rest of the main estimates are approved by summer.

In between, parliamentary committees are supposed to call witnesses, including ministers and officials, and give it all a good once-over, reducing or disapproving spending they don't like.

But remember: those estimates pre-date the budget.

Without solid, timely figures, committees sometimes just skip it. (A failure to object is deemed as approval.)

As MPs stand up to vote, sometimes precious little scrutiny has occurred.

Stuff happens

Government decisions don't always fall neatly into the fiscal year.

Take the move to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada: an urgent, multi-departmental effort.

The immigration department's spending was approved in December. It's reflected in this week's estimates.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau's department prepares its budget in a process that's separate from the Treasury Board's departmental spending estimates. If the two systems were parallel, not sequential, spending might be approved faster. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

But spending in other departments was not finalized in time. The main estimates for the defence department and the border services agency, as examples, won't reflect refugee costs.

Meanwhile, supplementary estimates tabled Friday for the fiscal year ending March 31 do reflect the late spending in the other departments. (MPs vote separately to approve that.)

Confused yet?

Time lags and lapsed funds

Treasury Board's briefing explains how a delayed funding decision for Marine Atlantic, the Crown corporation based in St. John's, NL, gave the false impression of a significant cut in the 2014-15 main estimates. Supplementary estimates in 2015-16 showed the organization's resources more than doubled.

On average, spending approvals take about 13 months, officials say. Programs announced in the 2013 and 2014 budgets have taken as long as 19 and 15 months, respectively, to get funding passed.

In the meantime, costs change.

"It's like a dog always chasing its tail," the Senate committee was told. "The budget creates expectations. It's aspirational...  but then we lose some of that urgency and momentum because it takes time to develop the proposals."

Delays also contribute to budgets lapsing at the end of a fiscal year.

Lapsed funds can help balance the books, but also breed skepticism of the process.

A government looks good announcing millions. But when things aren't spent in time, those funds just pad the bottom line.

On top of all this, budget projections from the finance department don't use the same accounting methods as the spending estimates from Treasury Board, so the figures don't line up.

To ease confusion this year, officials are working on a reconciliation table.

Reforms 'transformational'

In 2012, MPs from all parties on the Commons government operations committee made it clear that MPs had become ineffective at scrutinizing government spending and holding the government to account.

But little changed. 

For Brison, fixing the "complex and irrational" system is about respecting Parliament. 

Releasing a budget alongside corresponding spending estimates could be "transformational."

He met with Australia's finance minister in January at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland to discuss moving Canada closer to Australia's system, where funds can be approved within one to three months of a budget's release.

Officials note that provinces like Ontario and Quebec also work more efficiently.

Brison says he's "serving notice" of a better-aligned system to come. But his good intentions come too late for this year.

So welcome to one more "complex and irrational" budget cycle. And good luck.

About the Author

Janyce McGregor

Parliamentary Bureau

Janyce McGregor has covered Canadian politics for CBC News since 2001. Send news tips to: Janyce.McGregor@cbc.ca


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