At the time this article was
written Christopher Dunn taught Political Science at Memorial University in St.
One of the few areas in Canadian
Political Science where a relative calm exists is the study of provincial
legislatures. When in session they are the subject of daily attention in the
popular press but rare indeed is the article on them in the academic context.
Nowhere is this benign neglect more evident than in the back eddy of the
financial process in provincial legislative assemblies. It is fitting, then, to
attempt a comparative review of Western legislative financial processes and
reform efforts. We find much that is good, but substantial room for
The Western provinces share some
basic characteristics in the way that they handle financial affairs. This
financial business can usually be described as falling into three categories:
Main Estimates (for ordinary annual expenditures), Interim Supply, (passage of
a portion of the fiscal year's moneys in cases where the main supply bill
cannot be passed before the start of the fiscal year), and Taxation, (raising
revenue by legislative measure to cover expenditure). Some provinces will add
variations on this theme. Saskatchewan and Alberta, for example, have
Supplementary Supply to ratify special warrants which have earlier been
authorised by the Lieutenant-Governor in Council; whereas Supplementary Supply
Bills can also be used in Manitoba but are not a regular annual practice.(1)
Manitoba has separate Capital Supply (Main and Supplementary) whereas other
provinces may include capital in regular Supply bills. In Alberta,
Appropriation Bills are passed each year to authorise expenditures from the
Heritage Savings Trust Fund and from the Alberta Capital Fund in the same way
as Appropriation Bills are passed to authorise the expenditure of the Main
Estimates from the General Revenue Fund (known as "Consolidated Fund"
Erskine May's old statement of the
"general rules of the financial procedure of the Commons" in the
United Kingdom does not entirely apply to provincial legislatures. The rules
were that charges on the public purse must originate in the Commons and be
authorised by legislation before they acquire full validity; the Crown must
recommend the charge before the Legislature considers it; a committee of the
House must consider the charge before the House does; and there must be an
interval of at least a day between stages of financial business.(2) In
Saskatchewan, the necessity for a committee of the Assembly to consider the
charge before the Assembly does was abolished in the 1940s. In Alberta, not all
money bills go to committee but it is nevertheless an unwritten rule that the
Main Estimates are introduced only after supporting resolutions from the
Committee of Supply. In regard to stages of financial business, "it is not
uncommon in Manitoba for such a Bill [a Supply Bill, as distinct from the
Estimates] to be moved through all stages and given Royal Assent in the same
day. Often the final Supply Resolutions and the relevant Ways and Means
Resolution will be adopted on the same day and followed immediately by the
introduction of the relevant Supply Bill."(3) It is not common in Alberta
to push major financial legislation through several stages on one day, but it
is not unknown.
The committees employed to process
financial legislation used to be similar to those used in the UK before its
reforms of 1966. Western provinces relied on three Committees of the Whole to
perform the various finance-related functions in the legislature. Now only
Manitoba has all three: a Committee of Supply, a Committee of Ways and Means
and a Committee of the Whole. (British Columbia abolished its Committee of Ways
and Means in 1985, but has the other two as does Alberta). The Committee of Supply
(a committee consisting of the whole House) debates the estimates of
expenditure for the fiscal year under consideration. The Committee of Ways and
Means (also a committee consisting of the whole House) debates revenue
proposals and passes resolutions respecting the amounts necessary to cover the
expenditures of government. The Committee of the Whole serves as the forum for
the normal committee stage after second reading. In Saskatchewan the
"Committee of Finance" encompasses the functions performed elsewhere
by the Committee of Supply and the Committee of Ways and Means.
In keeping with British tradition
in financial matters, the executive proposes and the legislature disposes. The
Executive requests money and the legislature grants it. Recommendations on
"money bills" must be from the Lieutenant-Governor but the right to
make the ultimate decision is jealously guarded by the legislature.
All provinces have provisions in
their standing orders or legislature acts which give effect to sections 54 and
90 of the Constitution Act, 1867 and the matter of Lieutenant-Governor
recommendation. British Columbia's standing order (S.O.) 67 is nearly identical
to section 54 of the BNA Act:
It shall not be lawful for the
House to adopt or pass any vote, resolution, address or Bill for the
appropriation of any part of the public revenue, or of any tax or impost, to
any purpose that has not been first recommended to the House by Message of the
Lieutenant-Governor in the Session in which such vote, resolution, address or
Bill is proposed.
Alberta's S.O. 79 repeats exactly
the wording of section 54.
Rule 30 of the Saskatchewan
Legislative Assembly and Rule 53 of the Manitoba Assembly are slightly more
specific about what constitutes a money bill. To the above description Saskatchewan
adds "or [any vote] to impose any new additional charge upon the public
revenue or upon the people, or to release or compound any sum of money due to
the Crown, or to grant any property of the Crown, or to authorise any loan or
any charge upon the credit of the Province ¼ ." Manitoba's wording is
British Columbia goes one step
beyond the other western provinces by inclusion of a specific interdiction on
This House will not receive any
resolution stating an express or abstract opinion of the House on recommending
the expenditure of public money unless recommended by the Crown. (S.O. 66)4
The other provincial legislatures
have been somewhat more tolerant of accepting private resolutions or amendments
whose ultimate effect would be to increase expenditure. Saskatchewan's and
Manitoba's rules specifically allow abstract proposals. Alberta has no rule
against abstract opinions. In Manitoba money bills can be amended to decrease
an expenditure, remove or reduce an exemption from a tax or proposed tax but
there may not be moved an amendment that increases the expenditure, varies a
tax or a rate of tax, or provides an exemption or increases an exemption. The
general rule of thumb in most provinces is that if one goes "up" the
Lieutenant-Governor must recommend; if one goes "down" this is not
necessary. The Lieutenant-Governor's message of recommendation must accompany
measures to increase taxes and expenditures but not measures to decrease taxes
A number of interrelated documents
and events follow each other in very short order in the financial calendar of
the Legislature. At the beginning of each session the Speech from the Throne
outlines the general legislative program the government intends to implement.
Debate on the Speech from the Throne follows, providing members, effectively
the opposition, with the opportunity to criticise government initiatives. The
debate is limited to six sitting days in British Columbia, seven in
Saskatchewan, eight in Manitoba, and ten days in Alberta. After the House has
agreed to an Address in Reply to the Speech from the Throne is the normal point
at which the Assembly begins to deal with financial matters in the Budget
Speech. Nothing in the rules of the various assemblies, however, requires that
the budget debate be stayed until the Address in Reply is determined. Debate on
the Address in Reply may be set aside at any time when the House wishes to
proceed to other business; there is no priority attached to this Debate.
Estimates of expenditure are now
tabled at the same time as estimates of revenue in all four western provinces.
(Manitoba resumed this practice in 1983, thus falling into line.) There are no
rules or standing orders which call for this joint presentation but the
practice has evolved in order to allow for a balanced view of provincial
finances. The two types of estimates--expenditure and revenue--may be contained
in separate documents but some attempt will usually be made to relate the
information in one type to that in the other. Estimates of revenue are usually
accompanied by the expression of planned tax or other revenue measures in what
is generally referred to as the "budget address". Together the
Estimates of Expenditure and the Budget Address form the "Provincial
The Budget Address is the text
usually referred to as the "Budget Speech" of the Minister of
Finance. The Budget Address for British Columbia generally will occur between
the middle and end of February. The dates of the Budget Motion in Manitoba
varied between February 24 and May 15 in the 1970-1984 period, but half were in
April.(5) "Beginning in 1983 it has been the usual practice in Manitoba to
introduce the budget and table the estimates on the final day of the Throne
Speech Debate or a few days thereafter. (In 1987 the Throne Speech Debate
concluded March 10 and the budget was introduced March 16.)"6 The Budget
Addresses of Saskatchewan and Alberta usually happen between the middle and end
of March, just prior to the commencement of the new fiscal year (April 1 -
March 31). (In 1982 and 1987, however, the budget was delayed by months in
Saskatchewan). Typically the Budget Address includes fiscal and economic
forecasts and highlights new expenditure and revenue initiatives. The atmosphere
cultivated may range from the serene to the dramatic.
The Budget Debate follows the
budget speech. Limitations on the number of days which may be spent on this
debate vary by province: five days in Saskatchewan (excluding Budget day and
the debate that day), six sitting days in British Columbia (excluding the day
the Budget is presented) and eight in Manitoba. There is no duration limit on
budget response in Alberta.
Consideration of the estimates of
expenditure in the Committee of Supply is the next step. (In Saskatchewan they
are considered in the Committee of Finance.) This committee is composed of all
members of the House and examines the spending plans of the various
departments. Votes on specific appropriations provide the opposition with the opportunity
to criticise the direction of programs within the department.
Some provinces retain the practice
of having Supply dealt with in committee (the Committee of Supply) before
consideration by the House. British Columbia's standing order 65 (now repealed)
was a modification of an 1866 British standing order to that effect.
Preliminary referral of Supply to committee is now presumably implied in
Standing Order 60 which says "the Committee of Supply shall be appointed
for the Session on motion without previous notice." (Note should be made
of S.O. 60A, mentioned later.) Alberta does not have an explicit rule but it is
also implied in Standing Order 56 which states "there shall be a Committee
of the whole Assembly called the Committee of Supply" and in Standing
Order 57(3) which mentions referral of estimates to Committee of Supply.
Manitoba does not have an explicit rule either (other than standing orders
simply creating the Committee of Supply) but its "General Rule"
implies that it will refer to the precedents and practices already established
and, in the absence of precedent, to usages and customs of the federal
Parliament in financial matters. Presumably this gives it the option of
adhering to "old usages -- like the pre-1968 referral of Estimates to a
Committee of the Whole. "The Manitoba financial procedure is a simple case
of following a long established practice, only parts of which are laid down in
the Rules of the House."(7)
The Committee of Supply and, in
Manitoba, the Committee of Ways and Means are established at a point close to
the beginning of every session, in some cases after agreement on the Address in
Reply to the Speech from the Throne, in others after the tabling of the
estimates. The wording of the motions establishing the Committee of Supply and
of Ways and Means is designed to keep them from lapsing during the session and
to enable the House to go into either when it wants, on subsequent sitting
days. After passage, related motions are placed on the daily Order Paper, to be
proposed by the House Leader at any sitting at any time during Government
The Manitoba Legislative Assembly
procedure on supply bills is fairly representative of procedure in the other
western provinces. After the Budget Speech debate, the House Leader or Finance
Minister moves that the Speaker leave the chair and that the House resolve
itself into Committee of Supply. The Chairman of the Committee of Supply takes
his place and proceeds with the appropriate departmental estimate, calling each
item ("votes" covering organisations, functions or programs) and
allowing debate on individual Supply resolutions. When the Committee shows an
inclination to rise, or when it is after 10:00 p.m., or when the department
under consideration has been completed, or when there has been a motion
"that Committee rise", the Chairman asks "Committee rise?"
If this question is passed, the Speaker is called in, resumes his chair and the
Chairman of the Committee of Supply moves that the report of the Committee be
received. If the Committee rises and the House is adjourned after 10:00 p.m.
the report and the motion that it be received are held over to the next
sitting. In Manitoba, as in B.C., reports from the Committee of Supply may not
be amended or debated.
The Committee of Supply and the
Committee of Ways and Means are intimately related as far as financial measures
are concerned. A. E. Buck's description of the federal Commons counterparts
thirty-eight years ago is a lucid explanation of what still occurs in Manitoba.
Resolutions of the Committee of
Ways and Means must contain amounts which do not exceed those already voted in
Committee of Supply. The Committee of Ways and Means cannot debate what has
already been decided in Supply, and it cannot amend the resolutions in any way.
The passing of the resolutions by the committee is largely a formal matter.
Although these resolutions duplicate in a way the work of Supply, they must be
passed by the Committee of Ways and Means, reported back to the House and
agreed to, before a supply or appropriation bill carrying the amounts of the
voted estimates can be introduced in the House of Commons.(8)
In Manitoba, after the subsequent
adoption of all individual supply resolutions, and of concurrence motions in
the Committee and House, as well as of a Ways and Means Resolution in the
Committee of Ways and Means, the House resolves itself into the Committee of
The only matter considered in
Committee of the Whole after the adopting of the Ways and Means Resolution is
the Supply Bill itself.(9)
The House "votes" (gives
final approval to) expenditures by passing financial legislation known as the
"Supply Bill" in Manitoba and British Columbia or as the
"Appropriation Bill" in Saskatchewan and Alberta. (In Manitoba "Supply
Bill" is the term used in the Journals and in everyday reference to the
Bill, but paradoxically it is entitled an "Appropriation Bill"). The
Supply Bill authorises the expenditure of money for certain purposes and may
also be used to authorise borrowing of money needed for such expenditures.
Debate on the supply bill affords
the opposition in Manitoba two more opportunities to criticise the direction of
government spending. The opposition usually moves to adjourn debate after the
Finance Minister moves second reading of the supply bill, in order to voice its
criticism of government activities. The adjourned debate on the bill can be
recommenced at the will of the government house leader (being "government
business") but usually follows in an orderly fashion the next day or days.
The second opposition opportunity comes in Committee of the Whole. The motion
for the speaker to leave the chair is passed, the Chairman of the Committee of
the Whole takes his place and debate begins. The advantage to members is that
there is no limit on the number of times a member may speak, if recognised, and
motions do not need a seconder. The Report of the Committee is presented in the
same fashion as in Supply.(10)
Some differences exist between the
provinces in various aspects of supply procedure. One aspect is committee
structure. Saskatchewan has a strictly unitary (undivided) Committee of
Finance, but the other western provincial assemblies have a variety of
arrangements. (There is also no Committee of the Whole stage on Appropriation
Bills in Saskatchewan.)
Manitoba has the most unusual
structure for supply procedure with the Committee of Supply sitting as one
committee in two separate sections, one inside and one outside the Assembly
Chamber. The origins of this "made in Manitoba" arrangement underline
the importance of personalities in shaping the operations of provincial
legislatures. Before 1975 there was no time limit on the question period. Up to
this time Rule 65(1) of the Legislative Assembly had specified that "not more
than ninety hours shall be allotted to the business of Supply on Estimates,
including Main, Supplementary, Interim and Capital in each session." An
agreement between the NDP and PC house leaders resulted in the Government
getting a forty-minute time limit on question period and the Opposition getting
unlimited time to discuss estimates. The Rules were accordingly amended.
(However, Rule 64.1 (1) adopted in 1986 set a time limit of 240 hours at each
session for consideration of Ways and Means and Supply Resolutions respecting
Main, Interim, Supplementary and Capital Supply, and for consideration of the
relevant Supply Bills in Committee of the Whole.)
Shortly after the 1975 arrangement
was arrived at, concurrent sittings of supply were devised to deal with the
obvious problem of time management in the Assembly; and they have endured.
Subsections 4-6 of Rule 65 of the 1986 amended Rules, Orders and Forms of
Proceedings of the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba outline the arrangement:
(4) The Committee of Supply is
authorised to meet outside the Chamber to consider the estimates of government
(5) The Committee of Supply may,
unless otherwise ordered, sit in two separate sections concurrently, one
section in the Chamber and one section outside the Chamber, to consider the
estimates of separate government departments.
(6) Neither the Committee of
Supply, nor any section of the Committee of Supply, is authorised to sit to
consider estimates while the House is in session.
The quorum is 10 between both
places. One place is the House itself, the other is the legislature's main
As a result of changes to the Rules
in 1986, the order for consideration of departments in Supply is set on an
alternating basis. First, the Official Opposition House Leader selects the
departments whose estimates will be considered first in each section of the
committee. Then the Government House Leader chooses the second departments in
each section, and so forth in rotation, until all the departments have been assigned
a place in sequence. The Government House Leader tables in the House the
finalised written statement of the order of consideration, which once tabled
may be changed only by substantive motion with required notice, or by unanimous
consent. Rule 65 (6.1), (6.2), (6.3).
Alberta has a variegated committee
structure on paper, but not in practice. The 1984 Standing Orders of the
Alberta Legislative Assembly provide that:
57(1) The Committee of Supply may establish
subcommittees consisting of members of the Committee and, with respect to each
subcommittee so established, shall designate its name, appoint its members and
designate its chairman.
(2) One-third of the members of a
subcommittee appointed under this standing order constitutes a quorum at any
meeting of the subcommittee.
(3) Upon the submission of the
estimates to the Assembly, and their referral to the Committee of Supply, the
Committee of Supply may refer any portion of them to one of its subcommittees
for that subcommittee's report on it¼ .
57(6) No substantive vote shall be
made in a subcommittee, except to conclude discussion and rise and report.
The elections of 1975, 1979 and
1982 returned small numbers of opposition members, too few to make for a viable
subcommittee system. It remains to be seen if the larger opposition returned in
1986 will have any impact on financial procedures.
In 1985 British Columbia amended
its Standing Orders to provide for the possibility of referring of estimates to
select standing committees; these appear to be merely supplemental in nature to
the Committee of Supply. The provision for standing committees reads:
At any time after the Estimates
have been referred to the Committee of Supply, the Government House Leader may
refer Votes within the Estimates to a Select Standing Committee upon motion
without notice. Such motion shall be decided without amendment or debate. (S.O.
As of early 1987, however, the
standing committee approach to estimates has not been used; the Government to
date has been reluctant to countenance anything more than a bare minimum of use
for standing committees in general, and the estimates process appears affected
by this aversion.
Time limits regarding supply are a
second point of difference. The absence of any limit-until recently-in Manitoba
had expanded roughly threefold the amount of time spent on the process.(11)
Saskatchewan has time limits on the budget debate, and on the Appropriation
Bill at the conclusion of the session which has a two day limit. Limits however
are not applied to debate of second reading or to estimates; instead informal
negotiation about a timetable is worked out between Government and Opposition.
In Alberta, the limit applied to the consideration of Main Estimates by
Committee of Supply is 25 sitting days (S.O. 58(1)). As well, there is a limit
of 12 sitting days for Committee of Supply consideration of the Estimates and
Supplementary Estimates, if any, of the Alberta Heritage Savings Trust Fund
(A.H.S.T.F.) (S.O. 58(2)). In regard to ordinary Supplementary Estimates and
Interim Supply Estimates, "a minister of the Crown may, with at least one
day's notice, make a motion to determine the number of days that the Committee
of Supply and its subcommittees may be called ¼ and the question shall be
decided without debate or amendment" (S.O. 58(6)). By contrast, the
standing orders of 1974 did not include time limits on estimates consideration.
The British Columbia Legislature
has witnessed particularly volatile debates on the matter of supply time
limits, and time limits in general. The general direction has been to expand
rather than restrict the time allowed.
Global time limits were adopted
June 20, 1974 in S.O. 45A and covered the Address in Reply, Budget Debate, Public
and Private Bills, and Committee of Supply. The new Budget Debate rules
provided for a 40 minute limit on members' speeches (except for the Minister of
Finance and Opposition Leader or designated speaker) and a six-sitting-day
limit. In Committee of Supply, proceedings were not to be more than 45
sittings, with a further proviso. "If, at the conclusion of the 45th
sitting, 135 hours have not been utilised for debate in the Committee of
Supply, the Committee shall sit again for such additional time as may be
required to bring the total of time for Supply to 135 hours." Each member
was limited to 30 minutes.
The issue of Supply time limits
came to a head in May 1975 when the Social Credit opposition forced the issue
by vehemently protesting the New Democrats' attempt to enforce the 135-hour
limit. Newly-chosen Socred leader William R. Bennett stumped the province
popularizing a phrase— "not a dime without debate" —faintly
reminiscent of the Boston Tea Party, with analogous results. The Government
backed down on the issue but its image was seriously marred by the affair.
The Social Credit soon afterward
returned to government pledged to overturn the rule. Standing Order 45A was
amended on June 16, 1977 by removing the sections dealing with the imposition of
time limits in the Committee of Supply. The 1985 amendments to the standing
orders effectively continued this arrangement, changing only the maximum
speaking period for most members from 30 minutes to 15 minutes. However, this
is only the maximum at any one time; a Member in Committee of Supply may speak
as frequently as the Member wishes. There is therefore no effective time limit
to the deliberations of the Committee of Supply.(12)
Alberta, thirdly, also stands apart
in its practice of designated "opposition days." The other provinces
have not had similar provisions, probably because of their lack of time limits
and the general vigour and health of the opposition side.
Fourth, there are also slight
differences with regard to executive authority to modify spending limits. All
provinces provide for "special warrants" which allow for the
Lieutenant-Governor in Council to authorise expenditure that has not been
approved by the Legislature, where expenditure has not been foreseen or has
been insufficiently provided and is urgently needed for the public good.
However, the provinces differ as to which ministers are enabled to
"report" the need for special warrants and as to what fiscal year to
assign the amounts authorised in special warrants.
All of the provinces' financial
acts now stipulate that special warrants may only be authorised when the
Assembly is not in session or is adjourned. British Columbia and Saskatchewan
are the most restrictive. "Not in session" means the Legislature is
prorogued, dissolved, adjourned for an indefinite period or adjourned to a day
more than seven days. In Alberta it is deemed not in session when it is
adjourned for more than eight days. Manitoba's original 1969 legislation made
no mention of the Legislature not being in session. This led to a particularly
sticky situation in 1974, when special warrants were passed with the
Legislature still sitting, in order to pass Interim Supply. The Conservative
Opposition of the day had decided to protest a government action by filibustering
the Interim Supply debate until several days into the new fiscal year (April 1
- March 31). The NDP government, rather than use closure, used the loophole in
Section 42(1) to bring in special warrants to pass Interim Supply. The
Conservatives remembered this incident and made an appropriate change in their
1979 amendments to the Financial Administration Act. Section 42(1) now has the
words "when the Legislature is not in session or when the Legislature is
in session but has been adjourned for a period of more than 10 days."
Provinces do, however, provide an
accountability safeguard with special warrants. The public accounts of the
province will ultimately provide a statement of the authorisation of special
warrants and expenditures under the same.
How much of a case can be made for
reform of the financial process in Western Canadian legislative assemblies?
Unmistakably there is much that is valuable in existing procedure: unlimited
time for estimates debate in two of the provinces, joint tabling of revenue and
expenditure estimates, provisions for lengthy budget speech debates, frequent
opportunities to criticise government spending and explicit accountability
safeguards for use of special warrants in three of the provinces.
In addition, there have been
periodic reform efforts in the various provinces. In February 1985 the British
Columbia Legislative Assembly adopted the amendments to its Standing Orders
which had been unanimously recommended by its Select Standing Committee on
Standing Orders and Private Bills. These were the first major revisions in over
fifty years. Some of the wide-ranging changes related to financial business.
The procedures associated with interim supply were drastically simplified, the
Committee of Ways and Means was abolished, and there is now provision for
referral of estimates to select standing committees.(13) There have been three
major revisions to the Saskatchewan Rules since 1969.14 Some have touched on
financial affairs: the installation of a Board of Internal Economy, the 1970
establishment of the Committee of Finance and the combining of Second and Third
Readings of the Appropriation Bill into one debate of two sitting days.
It appears nonetheless that there
is much room for improvement. The signs indicating need for further reform fall
into two classes: apparent failure of political will and structural problems.
By "failure of political
will" we mean a tendency to follow the letter but not the spirit of
legislative rules. Opposition political parties have identified some examples
of such failure of political will.
1. British Columbia, 1983: Like
many of its contemporaries, the Social Credit Government tainted its
respectability by embarking upon a thinly-disguised political advertising
campaign (called "Provincial Reports") during the half year time
period preceding a provincial general election.
The gist of the Opposition's
argument was that the Government was paying for partisan advertising through
public moneys, which violated the principles of legislative control in B.C. and
was furthermore a breach of privilege. The votes identified by government
officials to an NDP researcher made no mention of authorising television
advertising, and were, according to the NDP, hence illegal. As well, said the
Opposition, "the right of parliament to be assured that the Crown does not
spend aside from or in addition to, legislative appropriation is a fundamental
privilege of Parliament itself ¼ spending funds outside or beyond parliamentary
appropriation is a breach of privilege."(15) The government as might be
expected did not give the charges serious consideration.
2. Manitoba, 1984: On April 13,
1984 Progressive Conservative Opposition member Brian Ransom rose on a matter
of privilege and moved "That this House condemn the action of the
Executive Council in passing a special warrant of $1.5 billion thereby
depriving the Members of the Legislative Assembly of their right to vote on
matters of supply." Mr. Ransom maintained in the House that
"what this government did was
to pass a Special Warrant for $1.5 billion, which was not only the largest
Special Warrant that this province has ever seen, but is larger than any
Interim Supply bill ever passed by this legislature¼ . What this government has
done is to deny the House the privilege and the right to debate the question of
On April 16, 1984, the Speaker
found that there was no prima facie case for giving the matter precedence over
other matters on the Order Paper. The provisions of the Financial Administration
Act had been followed, and the size of the Special Warrant was "a matter
for debate between Members and not something for the Chair to decide."(17)
3. Saskatchewan, 1987: The
Conservative Government refused NDP Opposition demands to call the "spring"
session of the Legislature and to present a budget, relying instead on special
warrants from April 1 to June 17, 1987. Opinions as to the constitutionality of
this omission were mixed: some deemed it a breach of convention, some called it
merely part of an unfortunate trend. Unfortunate indeed it was. There was a
major provincial restraint program being initiated at the same time, demanding
Government accountability, and it was the second time in five years that the
Government had so delayed a budget.
These are not the only relevant
examples of failure of political will in Western legislative assemblies. There
has been a general tendency for the relative size and use of special warrants to
increase in recent decades, indicating a valuing of administrative convenience
and financial legerdemain over legislative oversight.
Structural problems also indicate
need for further reform. Reports by provincial auditors or auditors-general
(18) are only one of several extremely useful sources for discovering
"structural problems," or deficiencies in the mechanisms used to
handle legislative financial business: structures such as the estimates,
reporting mechanisms, legislative committees and audit mechanisms. Auditors in
the four western provinces have made several recommendations about general
financial processes in the past decade. A review of the record shows that much
remains to be done to ensure that executive accountability to the legislature is
meaningful and that, although the provinces have made some progress, many
recommendations are only partially answered or even ignored.
Regarding Estimates, the Auditors
suggested multi-year fiscal plans for legislative review, formal legislative
mechanisms for evaluation of the provincial economy, "accountability
information" for the Legislature, and review of public spending which now
occurs without annual legislative scrutiny. Recommendations to improve
reporting included presenting Public Accounts data to allow comparability with
the Estimates and treating tax expenditures in the same manner as regular
expenditures for the purposes of budgeting and financial reporting. Public
Accounts Committees were urged to give more timely reports and departments were
exhorted to improve internal auditing.
Provinces might profitably then
devote more attention to ensuring that their budget processes are consistent
with meaningful accountability. Legislative reform efforts in the past,
laudable as they were, took place largely without the attention and involvement
of the larger public they were supposed to benefit. (19) Legislative reform in
general seems to be a secondary, low-profile item, and reform of legislative
financial processes in particular even more so. Some methods of attracting
public attention to the issue of accountability seem imperative.
Two options come to mind. One is to
publish a budget paper which would outline the problem of accountability in the
budget context. Ontario did this recently with its October 1985 budget paper
Reforming the Budget Process. Another is to adopt the eminently sensible
approach of the Lambert Commission and to see accountability reforms as matters
which must be co-ordinated in both the legislative and executive contexts.
There are certainly enough reasons
to suggest the need for reform of the budget process. Provincial auditors have
had little difficulty cataloguing a wide range of lax spending practices.
Provincial financial information seems delphic in nature. There are doubtless
many improvements to the budget process that could be made upon investigation.
If, as Socrates said, the unexamined life is not worth living, western
provinces have an interesting choice ahead.
1. A Supplementary Supply Bill
"has been done in only one of the last five sessions. It was done twice in
1982-1983, with one for $46,042,700 and another for $9,000,000."
Correspondence from W. H. Remnant, Clerk of the Legislative Assembly of
Manitoba, March 18, 1987.
2. Erskine May, Treatise on the Law,
Privileges, Proceedings and Usage of Parliament, (London: Butterworth and
Company, 1964) p. 715.
3. Remnant Correspondence, March
4. See George MacMinn,
Parliamentary Practice in British Columbia, (Victoria: Queen's Printer, 1981)
5. Correspondence from Gordon
Mackintosh, Clerk Assistant of the Manitoba Legislative Assembly, July 10,
6. Remnant Correspondence, March
8. A. E. Buck, Financing Canadian
Government (Chicago: Public Administrative Service, 1949).
9. Remnant Correspondence, March
10. The sections on the Manitoba
Supply procedure rely heavily on material supplied by the Clerk's Office,
Manitoba Legislative Assembly.
11. James Walding, Eighth Canadian
Regional Parliamentary Seminar, Commonwealth Parliamentary Association,
November 3, 1982, p. 142. Andy Anstett and Paul G. Thomas estimate that the
average over the last decade has been about 290 hours. "Manitoba: The Role
of the Legislature in a Polarized Political Culture," presentation to the
Conference on the Parliamentary Tradition in Canada, Quebec City, March 26-28,
1987, pp. 27-28.
12. Correspondence from Ian M.
Horne, Q.C., Clerk of the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia, March 17,
13. See speech by Mr. Pelton in
British Columbia, Debates of the Legislative Assembly (vol. 10) Feb. 12, 1985,
14. Saskatchewan, Legislative
Assembly, Report of the Special Committee on Standing Orders and Procedures of
the Assembly, December 1969; Third Report of the Special Committee on Rules and
Procedures of the Legislative Assembly, November 22, 1976; Report of the
Special Committee on the Review of Rules and Procedures of the Legislative
Assembly, April 21, 1981.
15. "Legislative Control over
Public Spending," news release by Alex Macdonald, Office of the Official
Opposition, Victoria, British Columbia, February 18, 1983.
16. Manitoba, Legislative Assembly
of Manitoba, Debates and Proceedings, April 13, 1984, pp. 12-13.
17. Manitoba, Legislative Assembly
of Manitoba, Votes and Proceedings, no. 3, April 16, 1984, pp. 21-22.
18. Annual Reports of the
Provincial Auditors for Manitoba and Saskatchewan and of the Auditors-General
for Alberta and British Columbia were examined for the years 1979 to present.
19. See, for example, Manitoba,
Legislative Assembly of Manitoba, Standing Committee on Rules of the House
Proceedings, November 8, 1984, pp. 49-51.