Panel targets Parliament's 'weakest link'

New committee 'has the potential to influence government spending right across the board'

Reprinted with permission from the Ottawa Citizen

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Tuesday, May 28, 2002

Kathryn May
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 Parliament.

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 agenda.

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 and services.

"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 public spending.

"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 reports.

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


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