Holding the government to account for its spending plans and the annual
voting of funds are two primary responsibilities of Parliament. This paper
looks at the estimates process in British Columbia.
British Columbia still uses the Committee of Supply to review ministry
estimates, rather than referring estimates to standing committees as many
legislatures in Canada do. Since 1992, our Committee of Supply has been
divided into two sections: Section A meets in the main committee room and
Section B in the chamber.
This year, for the first time, all ministry estimates were reviewed in
Section A. I should just explain that in 2005, cameras were installed in
our main committee room, allowing live web-casting and post-adjournment
televising of all Estimates debate in Section A. So this spring, government
decided to do all the estimates in the committee room in order to free
up time in the chamber to complete its busy legislative agenda by May 29.
Needless to say, this decision did not go down well with the Opposition.
Under previous sessional motions, the Opposition had the option of choosing
three ministry estimates for full debate in the chamber (Section B), where
the proceedings have been televised live since 1991.
Let me now give an overview of what a typical sitting day for Committee
of Supply Section A (or the little House) looks like. This spring I presided
over debates on all ministry estimates, totalling some 153 hours, as the
When chairing Section A, on my right sits the Minister, with the Deputy
Minister. Seating is available behind the Minister for five senior officials,
and others sit in the public gallery. This year, I counted 23 officials
from one ministry alone. Also, all ministry officials carry huge briefing
On my left sits the Opposition critic, who may be assisted by unseen researchers
monitoring proceedings via TV. Conspicuous by their absence are the news
This year, almost 17 hours were spent on Transportation estimates, closely
followed by Health estimates (15 hours). This left about 120 hours for
the other 17 ministries, the Premiers Office and the Legislative Assembly.
The questioning of the Minister is shared among the Opposition critic and
opposition members with an interest in the delivery of services at the
local level. Typically, the debate covers both partisan policy issues and
constituents concerns. As evidenced by the number of officials and the
size of their binders, obviously hundreds of hours of prep time go into
preparing staff for this process just in case they are needed. However,
at the end of the day, the proposed funding is usually approved without
This scenario is probably typical of what happens in other parliaments
across Canada. To be frank, I cannot help wondering if this is what members
of parliament at Westminster had in mind when they gained control of spending
and began the scrutiny process so many years ago.
Time Spent on Estimates, Fourth Session, Thirty-eighth Parliament (2008)
(as of May 29, 2008)
||Time Spent on Estimates
|Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation
||3 hours 14 minutes
||8 hours 20 minutes
|Agriculture and Lands
||8 hours 20 minutes
||3 hours 39 minutes
|Children and Family Development
||8 hours 41 minutes
||5 hours 06 minutes
||7 hours 04 minutes
||13 hours 36 minutes
|Employment and Income Assistance
||6 hours 14 minutes
|Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources
||5 hours 16 minutes
||6 hours 20 minutes
||3 hours 33 minutes
|Forests and Range
||13 hours 45 minutes
||15 hours 16 minutes
|Labour and Citizens' Services
||8 hours 56 minutes
||8 hours 40 minutes
|Public Safety and Solicitor General
||3 hours 23 minutes
|Small Business and Revenue
||5 hours 14 minutes
|Tourism, Sports and the Arts
||1 hour 46 minutes
||16 hours 58 minutes
|Vote 1 and Legislative Officers
||153 hours 22 minutes
Does the estimates process provide good value for the taxpayer?
It is becoming more of a challenge for members nowadays to hold government
to account for financial management. I think there are really three issues:
time management, information gaps and procedural obstacles. These issues
are relevant ones, whether Estimates debate takes place in Committee of
Supply or standing committees.
All members face competing demands on their time no matter what party
they belong to. This is due in part to the deadlines set by the calendar
for completion of legislative business. These time pressures became obvious
during the BC estimates review process this spring. For example, the Minister
of Health broke with tradition by not giving the 30-minute opening statement.
Due to the crowded calendar, he had to be in the committee room to defend
his ministry estimates and also in the chamber to pilot five bills beyond
second reading near the end of the spring sitting (May 20-29 period).
On the other side of the House, it is probably fair to say that the Opposition
feels it never has enough time to give ministry estimates the detailed
scrutiny they deserve. In our Assembly, the adoption of a time allocation
motion on May 6 certainly increased the pressure on members to complete
all estimates by May 29.
Another issue focuses on whether we have the information, support or expertise
to hold government to account for financial management. In other words,
are we up to the challenge, given the size and complexity of the public
Let me just summarize some results of interviews with federal MPs in 2002:
First, the good news. Most MPs did not seem to have a problem with the
financial administration framework the legislation, standing orders relating
to the business of Supply, and committee mandates.
Also, MPs felt they had a reasonable grasp of the big financial picture:
total revenues and expenditures, deficits and surpluses, aggregate debt
However, MPs often admitted they did not pay much attention to the Estimates,
and only had a weak idea of what level of resources was spent to achieve
To avoid being accused of Ottawa-bashing, let me be very clear that most
members of provincial and territorial assemblies would have similar financial-competency
scores as MPs! Most of us are generalists after all rather than experts
in public finance.
Let me turn now to some procedural issues. I am not yet an expert on procedure
but I think it is safe to say that parliamentary Estimates committees in
all jurisdictions cannot recommend an increase in the appropriation requested,
once review of line-by-line spending is completed. While they can reject
or reduce the estimate, most of the time they simply approve it unchanged.
As a result, the estimates process appears to be an annual ritual like
the rite of spring.
Furthermore, surveys of MPs (2001) and MLAs (2002) reveal that Canadian
legislators express great frustration with the government estimates process,
and the net result is their limited participation.2 These findings are
far from new. As David Good points out, there is a long history of parliamentarians
frustration with the review and approval of the governments estimates.3
I think we need to recognize the fact that in Westminster-style parliaments,
there is currently no forum for private members (backbenchers) where they
can advocate new or expanded program activity, or propose even modest increases
in government spending. I wonder how many members think the ban preventing
parliamentarians from initiating expenditure is the main procedural obstacle
Reforming the Process
As there is no shortage of ideas for reform, I want to focus on those that
tackle the three issues described earlier: time management, information
gaps, and procedural obstacles.
One way to revive the estimates process is to consider allocating a set
amount of time for the minister to be available for opening remarks and
answer any questions at the conclusion of the process. This would mean
that the bulk of Estimates debate questions would be addressed by senior
officials who would provide technical details.
This procedure would facilitate debate on public policy questions between
the minister responsible and Opposition critics. It would also mean that
technical questions regarding local projects or constituents concerns
(short snappers) could be asked in the ministers absence and answered
by ministry officials.
On the other hand, I cannot help wondering whether this distinction between
the ministers policy role and senior officials administrative role is
a realistic one in the cut-and-thrust of Estimates debate.
At the federal level, I have recently heard about the establishment of
a new office, the Parliamentary Budget Office.4 This is an important step
to address information gaps and enhance scrutiny of government spending.
The offices mandate is to provide objective analysis to the House and
Senate about trends in the economy, the state of the nations finances,
and the government estimates.
Appearing before the House Government Operations and Estimates Committee
on May 13, the new Parliamentary Budget Officer (Kevin Page) explained
his role. He said he can offer MPs a little simplicity and clarity to
reading the governments books and also flag those big material increases
that show up in the estimates from time to time.5
It has also been proposed that the new office take on the specific task
of looking at the estimates from the parliamentarians perspective.6
Now, let me move to the topic of reform of House rules regarding examination
of estimates. To date, much of the discussion has focused on the distance
between where we are now and where we ought to go.
However, one author, David Smith, suggests that we also need to ask another
question: what ought to be undone? At the federal level, did the removal
of estimates from the whole House acting as Committee of Supply to standing
committees strengthen or weaken Parliament, the opposition, and the concept
of government accountability?7
Dr. Smiths question is also a valid one to ask at the provincial level
and not only in those parliaments that refer estimates to standing committees.
In British Columbia, the question can be framed this way: Do we need to
revisit the decision to review all estimates in the main committee room?
Should we do some, or even all, estimates in Committee of Supply in the
While it is too early to assess the experiment this spring, my personal
view is that it is certainly more challenging to maintain order and decorum
in a committee room than in the chamber. The more informal setting encourages
committee members to interact with people who show up in the public gallery,
behavior that would not occur in the chamber.
My simple conclusion is that there seems to be a widespread consensus that
the estimates review process needs to be reformed. In Ottawa and in the
provinces, members belonging to all parties feel frustrated by their inability
to exercise effective scrutiny.
1. See Peter Dobell and Martin Ulrich, Parliament and Financial Accountability,
Research Paper for Gomery Commission, 2006, pp. 24, 28-29.
2. David C. Docherty, Legislatures, UBC Press, Vancouver, 2005, p. 18.
3. David Good, The Politics of Public Money, University of Toronto Press,
Toronto, 2007, p. 233
4. See Gary Levy, A Parliamentary Budget Officer for Canada, Canadian
Parliamentary Review, vol 31, Summer 2008.
5. The Hill Times, 26 May 2008.
6. Thomas S. Axworthy, Everything Old is New Again: Observations on Parliamentary
Reform, Queens University, Centre for the Study of Democracy, April 2008,
7. See David Smith, The Peoples House of Commons: Theories of Democracy
in Contention, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 2007.