The announcement this week that the House of Commons standing committee on government operations and estimates will study ways to give MPs more control over spending is timely and welcome. Timely, because budgetary restraint has become a byword of governments worldwide, and welcome because, over the past 40 years, the House of Commons has steadily relinquished its control over expenditures to the point that it now functions in dereliction of its primary duty as the “power of the purse.”
Former Senator Lowell Murray lamented this fact in a speech in 2011 when he said the House of Commons has “allowed their most vital power, the power of the purse, to become a dead letter, their supply and estimates process an empty ritual.” Other parliamentarians have characterized the current situation to The Globe and Mail as “almost a joke” and “pathetic.”
It is supposed to be a straightforward process: The Crown, on the advice of the government, initiates spending and taxation programs. The government provides detailed estimates of the costs to the House of Commons, where the estimates are scrutinized in committee, and then approved, reduced or rejected. When approved, the House votes on supply bills that appropriate the necessary monies from the government’s consolidated revenue fund, and the business of government continues.
Would Canadians be shocked to learn that, at a time when taxpayers are more aware than ever of the catastrophic consequences of poorly managed public finances, the spending of the vast majority of federal departments is never examined at all by Parliament?
Would they be shocked to know that it has been more than 10 years since the House reduced the amount of a single spending item? That the government routinely keeps vital budgetary information from MPs?
We think they would be horrified. Yet these are exactly the troubling issues the committee is, or should be, trying to rectify.
There are multiple glaring obstacles preventing MPs from overseeing the public purse. For instance, when the government unveils its annual budget, usually in March, the spending estimates that accompany it have not been prepared in conjunction with the budget. This means MPs are given numbers that have no bearing on the budget and must wait months for supplementary estimates to see ones that do.
And then there’s this: Any estimates not examined by MPs are automatically “deemed” to have been approved. Since the majority of department estimates are never subject to committee oversight (even though there is nothing preventing that oversight from occurring), most go directly to the supply stage without discussion. There is no messy cross-examination of the minister or civil servants responsible for the estimates, no chance for your MP to question an expenditure and, heaven forbid, reduce the amount.
This is a betrayal of the historic purpose of Parliament. Canada’s Parliament is a child of Britain’s “Westminster system,” which was in turn born out of hundreds of years of tension between English monarchs and commoners. The Crown needed money for wars, castles and the upkeep of the court; when it didn’t have enough of its own, it imposed taxes. The people justifiably began demanding the right to control how the taxes were raised and spent. As early as 1295, a council representing commoners proclaimed, “What touches all should be approved by all.”
Centuries of conflict and struggle have confirmed the primacy of the Commons in the Westminster system over matters of taxation and spending. In Canada, our constitution and our laws make it clear that only the House of Commons can create a tax, and only the Commons can permit tax dollars to be spent.
It is thus fair to say that the essential duty of your MP is to oversee the accounts of the Crown. But, thanks in part to the growth of the federal government to the point that the estimates and supply process has become onerous, and also in part to the rise of a political culture of control that centralizes power in the Prime Minister’s Office and the cabinet, in financial matters your MP has been reduced to an expensive rubber stamp. When the king wants a new castle, he gets it.
The solutions are as obvious as the problems: Align the budget and estimates cycles; eliminate the deeming rule; require the government to release budgetary information in a timely fashion; and give MPs the resources and time required to examine the government’s vast accounts.
Given that the current government was elected on a promise to bring accountability to Parliament, here is the chance to live up to that promise by returning the power of the purse to the Commons, where it rightfully belongs.