At the time this article was
written Marlene Catterall was the Member of Parliament for Ottawa West, Deputy
Government Whip and Chair of the Sub-Committee on the Business of Supply. This
article is adapted from a speech to the Canadian Study of Parliament Group on
November 4, 1995
The topic of accountability goes
to the very essence of the role of Parliament – to grant money to the Crown and
determine how it is to be spent. The budget put forward by the government and
approved by Parliament is the nation’s prime policy document. It determines the
strength of our economy, the kind of society in which we live and the future we
are creating for the generations to come. This article considers some ways the
accountability process may be improved.
Fifteen years ago when the Canadian
Comprehensive Auditing Foundation was holding its founding meeting, I was invited
to sit on a panel about the information needs of elected representatives for
decision making. A decade and a half later, with the advancement of technology
and access to information virtually unlimited, the question is still a
difficult one. It is a question that can only be answered based on how
politicians define their role and responsibility for decision-making and
My first experience of
parliamentary committees was a shocker. Coming from municipal government where
council committees played a significant role in reviewing the past performance,
current circumstances and future directions of departments, I was astounded to
find that consideration of the federal government’s Estimates was more like a
shooting gallery. Members tended to identify their personal hobby horse or zero
in on that one little detail in the Estimates and largely ignore their
responsibility to hold the government and the Public Service accountable for
how well they were carrying out their obligations on behalf of Canadians.
The essence of accountability is
how well Members of Parliaments carry out their responsibility to the public to
ensure the best use of their resources in the public interest. But Canadians
are no longer content to simply trust their politicians and their government to
manage the affairs of the nation. They want increased public scrutiny and
public involvement in the decision-making process.
To address these concerns, two of the
essential commitments of the Liberal Party’s Red Book for the 1993 election
were to restore integrity and the confidence of the public in their
institutions. An important part of that commitment was to more open government
and to giving Members of Parliament a more significant role in decision-making
on behalf of Canadians.
In that election year, a caucus
working group also produced a document called "Reviving Parliamentary
Democracy". Two recommendations in that report are especially relevant to
accountability. The first was that political parties in the House must have
ample opportunity to place down their alternatives for free and open debate and
decision-making without artificial application of the no-confidence doctrine. A
second was that elected representatives must be permitted more influence on
decisions regarding expenditure priorities with meaningful involvement in the
process before the government’s actual spending Estimates are formally
Some measures have been implemented
related to the budget process and accountability, and other initiatives are
underway. For the very first time, open public consultations were held early in
our government’s mandate in preparation for its first budget. There was very
little time for this process as the budget cycle was well under way. We
recognized the inadequacies but also the benefits of consulting a cross-section
This process served two purposes.
It engaged a large cross-section of Canadians in dialogue on the major economic
issues confronting the nation and the government. Equally importantly, it
started the process of generating greater public understanding of the budget
process, of the fundamental issues and of the basic choices to be made. Public
awareness and understanding are fundamental to effective consultation and to
meaningful public influence on government actions.
A second major step forward was to
amend the Standing Orders to allow committees of Parliament to consider
future spending priorities, to report to Parliament and to advise government on
the next budget, allowing Members of Parliament to play a larger role in
influencing budgetary directions.
In preparation for last year’s
budget and again this year, the Finance Committee was given the mandate to seek
the views of Canadians on the preparation of the coming budget and report to
Parliament. Last spring, departments produced outlook documents for
consideration by the Standing Committees. The purpose of these documents was to
allow Standing Committees to have a broader understanding of past spending and
future plans, to consider trends, and to provide input to the next year’s
budget. This is an initiative which in my view has great potential but has a
long way to go.
Two processes are under way
currently to further develop the ability of parliamentarians through Standing
Committees to have a constructive role in influencing future budgets and in
accountability: the work being done by the Sub-Committee on the Business of
Supply of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs and the changes
being developed by Treasury Board to the information to be provided to
For the second process, a working
group has been established of parliamentarians from all parties to meet with
Treasury Board officials and the Minister’s Parliamentary Secretary to review
and comment on proposed changes. Without going into great detail, the purpose
is to provide Members of Parliament with information to assist them to better
determine what results have been achieved, to have access to information in a
more manageable way and to see more clearly the broader priorities of
departments without sacrificing access to the details.
The Sub-Committee on the Business
of Supply was established as a result of a motion of the House of Commons which
instructed the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs to,
"undertake a comprehensive review of the business of supply, with
particular attention to the reform of the Estimates and the processes and
mechanisms by which the House and its committees may consider and dispose of
The Sub-Committee will have to
assess whether the current procedures of Parliament, the information provided
to it and the way in which Parliament and its committees make use of the
processes and information are adequate to ensure the public that we are
carrying out that responsibility.
We need to assess whether there is
enough public scrutiny to assure Canadians that we are adequately fulfilling
that responsibility on their behalf.
One of the key issues to be considered
is whether Parliament wants to achieve better accountability or better control
of expenditures. In my view we need to do both. They are interlinked and tied
as well to enhancing the policy-making and legislative role of Parliament and
Exercising accountability well,
consistently and publicly, improves responsibility and performance by
government and the Public Service. But we are not bookkeepers and accountants.
Our responsibility is not only to ensure that money was spent as intended, but
that the expected results are being achieved.
The Business of Supply days in the
House of Commons is one area we will have to address. It is telling that these
twenty days allotted for the Opposition to put forward and debate subjects of
their choice have come to be known as Opposition days. In reality, they seldom
are used as intended: to hold the government accountable for its use and
management of public funds. Would the public interest be better served if these
days were specifically used for matters of expenditure?
The issue of confidence will be
another challenging topic. The confidence instrument is central to
accountability. It allows the House at any time to indicate that the government
no longer enjoys sufficient support in the House to continue governing. Yet
Opposition parties complain that confidence is over used, stifles debate, and
limits Parliament’s freedom to consider options other than those put forward by
Confidence applies not only to
Parliament’s accountability role, but also to its control role. The argument is
that the confidence convention prevents serious consideration of the Estimates.
Without the ability to change the Estimates, there is little incentive for
parliamentarians or committees to spend the time to examine and report on the
Estimates. And few of them do.
It is necessary, however, to put
the issue of control in a broader context than simply the ability to change a
thousand dollars here, or ten thousand there, after the Estimates have been
tabled. Accountability, and even tinkering with the Estimates, are backward
Our role as parliamentarians is to
anticipate and plan for the future.
Control should mean Parliament
being involved, and therefore having the public involved at the beginning of
the budget cycle, and influencing beforehand the future directions and
priorities of government.
One of the challenges the
Sub-Committee will have to address is whether and how the Business of Supply,
the Estimates and the budget can be made more relevant to Members of
Parliament, so that parliamentary committees are prepared to give the time and
attention needed to enhance their role both for holding government accountable
and for affecting future spending priorities.
Most committees of Parliament are
primarily interested in policy issues. They spend the majority of their time
and effort on producing policy reports to which the government must respond in
a defined period of time. There is considerable frustration that much of this
policy work does not achieve results.
Would parliamentarians’ approach to
the Estimates change if they could begin to see their accountability role as
integrated with their role in developing policy? Under such a scenario,
committees could begin to look at the Estimates as a policy document, to
examine the spending proposals of government for their congruence with policies
and programs that they as Members of Parliament felt were the priorities to
meet the needs of today and the emerging needs of tomorrow. Would such an
approach more quickly identify programs that are no longer a priority and
should be discontinued? Would it ensure that the spending plans of government
are anticipating future trends, and preparing to meet them? Would it not
bring greater relevance to the whole concept of accountability and focus it
where it belongs, on the results being achieved? And would it not give
committees substantial relevance in contributing to the development of the
budget to come?
Or do we need one centralized
Budget/Estimates committee? One proposal is that such a committee,
well-staffed, would develop the expertise to provide on-going review of the
Estimates of all departments. Perhaps such a committee is needed to focus
on the details of spending while the policy committees concentrate on the policy
implications of expenditure patterns.
What I envision is a year-round
process that would involve Parliament in developing an understanding of
the priorities and resources of departments through the Estimates.
Committees would then have the knowledge base on which to hold the government
accountable for the results its programs are achieving, to consider future
trends and to make recommendations on the coming year’s budget. In the autumn,
information on performance and results achieved could be used to assess how
well departments are fulfilling their mandates and this could lead to more
perceptive examination of the following year’s Estimates. Throughout, the
Committees’ considerations would be enlightened by the policy work they
Through the public consultations
that parliamentary committees regularly undertake, the priorities and concerns
of a wide cross-section of the public interest could be brought to bear on
those all-important decisions about spending priorities. Perhaps then,
Canadians would see their views having significant impact, their Members of
Parliament being more effective, and the Parliament, itself, being more
accountable and relevant to their needs and priorities.