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A stop sign is seen near Peace Tower in Ottawa on Dec. 30, 2009. (BLAIR GABLE/Blair Gable/Reuters)
A stop sign is seen near Peace Tower in Ottawa on Dec. 30, 2009. (BLAIR GABLE/Blair Gable/Reuters)

MPs seek to bolster their powers of public-spending oversight Add to ...

Backbench MPs are launching a sweeping study of their own powers Wednesday in hopes of wrestling back some long lost influence over public spending.

Parliament routinely rubber stamps more than $230-billion in annual spending presented to them as a fait accompli by the Prime Minister and his ministers in cabinet. Calls to reform the ancient spending review process have flared up under Liberal and Conservative governments, but the frustration of MPs remains.

In a House of Commons where the name calling and insults flying in both directions appears to be reaching a new all-time low, this review by the Government Operations committee is – for now – a rare place of all-party harmony.

“This is an important study,” said rookie MP Alexandre Boulerice, who’s been surprised to learn that the myriad spending reports the government provides to MPs are often of little use because of the way they are presented.

For instance, the budget presents an overview of government spending and is followed a few days later by the main estimates, which contain more detailed spending plans by government departments. Yet the main estimates do not include any new measures from the budget. Those come months later in supplementary estimates.

There can be more than one round of supplementary estimates in a year. It drives veteran MPs nuts. Rookie MPs – and there are many in this Parliament – are confused.

One unusual aspect of the study is that it’s opening meeting Wednesday afternoon will be behind closed doors with government officials from the Treasury Board. MPs said there was a desire by some on the committee to start off this way for one meeting only so that MPs could ask questions without being embarrassed about what they don’t know.

“There was some argument made, which I don’t fully understand, that since some of the MPs are new, they might ask silly questions,” said John McCallum, the lone Liberal on the committee. With a Conservative majority, nothing happens in committee without the government’s support. However in this case, both the Tory backbench and cabinet say they support changes to the system.

Conservative MP Mike Wallace, the vice-chair of the committee, said he hopes that in the end it will lead to clearer government spending reports. He also hopes MPs will be able to able to make changes to spending plans by government departments without risking a snap election, as is the case currently.

Treasury Board President Tony Clement, whose department produces the spending reports that MPs must approve, has recently introduced new quarterly reports with added spending details for MPs. He says he agrees the status quo must change.

“The estimates process, I believe, is not living up to what it can do to have the oversight of Members of Parliament,” he said. “I’m all in favour of the committee offering some advice to me as President of the Treasury Board and to the government to see what we can do differently.”

One witness who is expected to be called is Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page. Now in his final year in the job, the spending watchdog isn’t pulling any punches about what he sees as a government that leaves MPs in the dark.

“The system is broken,” said Mr. Page in an email, adding he is very happy to hear that MPs are tackling this issue. As departments implement spending reduction over the coming years, Mr. Page said it’s a perfect time for MPs to get more involved in these decisions.

He said the Constitution spells out that MPs should have the final say over government spending, yet this rarely happens in practice. Instead, these decisions are left in the hands of the Prime Minister’s Office and cabinet.

Mr. Page then makes a suggestion that will likely be a hard sell with the government: “make the playing field more level” by shifting some of the money spent by government departments to Parliament.

“The time is right for substantive change,” he said.

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