targets Parliament's 'weakest link'
New committee 'has the potential to influence government spending
right across the board'
Reprinted with permission from the Ottawa
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Tuesday, May 28, 2002
The Ottawa Citizen
After 35 years of resistance, the federal government is creating a new
super parliamentary committee to oversee the spending of $170 billion
in taxpayer dollars that now receives little or no scrutiny by
A motion to set up a new "government operations and estimates
committee" was approved by Parliament yesterday, with the
sweeping mandate to oversee all public spending and federal operations
that now fall between the cracks and aren't formally examined by any
other parliamentary committee or sub-committee.
A new committee to investigate expenditures has been talked about
and debated for decades, but was finally pushed through when 25
Liberal backbenchers broke ranks last March and voted to put a
controversial report calling for an estimates committee back on the
For the first time, a parliamentary committee will have the power
to investigate how the government intends to spend taxpayers' money in
the future, rather than focusing on how money was spent in the past,
said Canadian Alliance MP John Williams, who co-wrote the report with
government whip Marlene Catterall.
The government will spend about $170 billion this year on programs
"It improves the government's accountability and broadens the
mandate of Parliament to look into issues it should have been looking
at all along," said Mr. Williams.
"If allowed to work, this committee has the potential to
influence government spending right across the board and the
effectiveness of program delivery."
The new committee's responsibilities also extend to some of the
political hot button issues that have left the Liberals vulnerable to
the opposition's recent accusations of patronage, lack of integrity
and corruption. The committee can review and report on the
"management and effectiveness" of Crown corporations and
agencies, $115 billion in statutory programs, tax expenditures, loan
guarantees and private foundations that receive the majority of their
funding from the federal government.
The new committee will also provide a home for independent officers
of Parliament, who have long complained their reports don't get the
attention they deserve, such as the Information and Privacy
Commissioners and Public Service Commission. Ethics counsellor Howard
Wilson will also fall under this committee's mandate, but only dealing
with his activities that fall under the Lobbyist Registration Act.
The integrity of Crown corporations was thrown into the spotlight
earlier this year with allegations that former public works and
governments services minister Alfonso Gagliano steered contracts and
jobs to his political friends, allies and supporters. Auditor General
Sheila Fraser recently expressed her concern over more than $7 billion
in taxpayers' money being hidden in private foundations that are
virtually outside the control of Parliament.
The creation of the new committee, however, has nothing to do with
the corruption allegations dogging the government. The recommendation
for the committee went back to a 1997 report -- known as the Catterall-Williams
report, before being resurrected in a private members bill by Mr.
Williams last March. Negotiations between the government and
opposition parties over the committee's mandate and composition
dragged on for the past month before wrapping up late last week.
The committee, however, is seen as filling a critical gap in the
government's accountability chain. The auditor-general's office has
argued for years that there wasn't enough parliamentary oversight on
"As far as I'm concerned, the most important duty of
Parliament and parliamentarians is to approve the government's
spending of tax dollars. To me, that's the most important role of
elected members and they have to devote more attention to it than they
have in the past," said former auditor-general Denis Desautels,
who now heads the Centre for Governance at the University of Ottawa.
Parliament only examines a small portion of what the government
spends every year. The new committee, however, could review statutory
spending, which accounts for about 70 per cent of all government
expenditures, but now receives no parliamentary scrutiny or approval.
About $114 billion goes to permanent or 'statutory" programs
that Parliament has already approved and funded through legislation,
such as transfers to the provinces, or programs such as child support,
pensions, equalization, health and education and annual debt charges.
Peter Dobell of the Parliamentary Centre said the examination of
public spending has long been Parliament's weakest spot, but
questioned whether the new committee will be any more effective than
other adversarial and highly-partisan parliamentary committees.
Mr. Dobell also argued its mandate may be so broad or sweeping that
the committee's agenda could be unmanageable.
"It does address where Parliament is weakest," said Mr.
Dobell. "This committee is responsible for a lot of areas that
have been ignored because there was no place for them to be examined,
so it opens a huge opportunity, but because the mandate is so large
we'll have to wait and see how well it performs."
Parliament turned over the review of the government's
"estimates" or expenditure plans to the various Commons
committees in 1968 in a bid to improve oversight. The committees,
formed along portfolio lines, are supposed to review the estimates of
the corresponding departments. For example, the heritage committee
reviews the heritage department's expenditure plans. The problem,
however, is that committees have paid scant attention to them.
Mr. Williams argues the new committee will complement the work of
the public accounts committee, which is the key oversight committee
that examines how money was spent. It reviews and holds hearings into
the Canada's public accounts and the auditor-general's quarterly
Mr. Williams argues the committee will throw the spotlight on
government operations, which used to have its own standing committee
until it was "orphaned" and rolled into the duties of the
Commons natural resources committee and more recently was made part of
the transport committee.
© Copyright 2002 The Ottawa Citizen