The federal government released a report to Parliament Tuesday outlining $87-billion in planned spending, most of which is related to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Treasury Board President Jean-Yves Duclos tabled the government’s latest spending plans – officially called Supplementary Estimates A – Tuesday afternoon.
The government is facing criticism over this year’s estimates process, which will limit MPs to no more than four hours of debate on the floor of the House of Commons on June 17 to review and approve the spending detailed in Tuesday’s report.
Citing health concerns related to the pandemic, the government secured NDP and Green Party support for a May 26 motion to suspend regular sittings of the House of Commons until Sept. 21.
The motion allowed for four regular sitting days during that suspension, in addition to the June 17 meeting.
Parliamentary Budget Officer Yves Giroux told MPs Friday that the time limit on Parliamentary review of the spending was “unfortunate to say the least.”
In an appearance before the House of Commons committee on government operations and estimates, Mr. Giroux said the stage was set for “a very expensive four hours” for Canadian taxpayers.
“The amount of scrutiny for this unprecedented spending would also be unprecedented, but for the wrong reasons,” he told MPs.
Government spending must be approved by Parliament through a process called the estimates. Parliament has already approved $305-billion through the Main Estimates, which generally provide base funding for federal departments. Additional spending plans are presented to Parliament in the form of supplementary estimates, which were released Tuesday.
The government normally presents two or three rounds of supplementary estimates in a fiscal year, titled A, B and C. Tuesday’s report confirmed there will be three supplementary estimates reports this year.
As a point of comparison, the supplementary estimates A for the previous fiscal year added up to $4.9-billion, followed by $3.8-billion in supplementary estimates B.
Karl Sasseville, a spokesperson for the Treasury Board President, said Parliament previously had a chance to authorize and debate most of the spending when MPs voted on emergency spending bills in March and April to approve new government programs in response to the pandemic. Mr. Sasseville said only about $6-billion of the $87-billion involves proposed new spending that is not related to those emergency bills.
“For maximum transparency, the estimates documents will provide information on spending authorized through the COVID-19 Emergency Response Acts, which have already been negotiated, discussed, debated, and unanimously approved by Parliamentarians," he said in an e-mailed statement. "Our government will continue to support Canadians as our country navigates through these challenging times and Canadians expect all Parliamentarians to do the same.”
Those emergency spending bills authorized the government to spend on pandemic programs, but they did not outline specific dollar figures for each program.
For instance, the first emergency bill approved in March included a new law called the Public Health Events of National Concern Payments Act. That section authorized the ministers of health and finance to spend “all money required to do anything in relation to that public health event of national concern.”
Tuesday’s estimates report shows that new provision was used to approve $60-billion for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, $5.3-billion for the Canada Emergency Student Benefit, $3-billion for the Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance program, $2.5-billion for seniors and $1.8-billion for protective gear and medical equipment.
Conservative and Bloc Québécois MPs have criticized the continuing suspension of regular sittings, arguing that it reduces Parliament’s ability to thoroughly review government spending plans and hold officials to account.
For instance, the estimates are divided into votes and are normally referred to the relevant standing committee for further review. There, MPs can call the relevant minister or department officials to explain the proposed spending. A committee can recommend the proposed spending be lowered, but is not allowed to recommend an increase.
That includes the temporary COVID-19 committee, which includes all MPs and meets on the floor of the House of Commons – with some MPs participating remotely – four days a week until June 17.
Conservative MP and Treasury Board critic Tim Uppal said in a statement Tuesday that Parliament should be meeting regularly to review government spending and hold the government to account.
“With the help of the NDP, the Liberals have shamefully shut down Parliament until at least the fall," he said. “That is not how our democracy is supposed to work. Opposition parties provide vital oversight and hold the government accountable.”
Some of the $6-billion in proposed new spending in Tuesday’s estimate report includes:
- $585.8-million for two support ships – the HMCS Protecteur and HMCS Preserver – which began construction in 2018.
- $481.2-million for the Federal Indian Day Schools Settlement Agreement.
- $468.2-million for child and family services on reserves.
- $405.2-million across several departments and agencies for the National Medical Research Strategy to develop vaccines and therapies in response to COVID-19.
- $395.8-million toward a Disability Insurance plan for unionized public servants “who have exhausted their sick leave credits and are unable to work due to a debilitating illness or injury.”
- $312.2-million to expand aviation security screening, including the purchase of full body scanners.
- $274.5-million to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and other federal bodies for COVID-19 reserach.
- $264.6-million to Via Rail Canada Inc. for operations and maintenance.
- $260-million toward the “Sixties Scoop” settlement related to the adoption of Indigenous persons by non-Indigenous families between 1951 and 1991.
- $232-million to the Department of Indigenous Services for health, social and education services.
The Conservatives and the Bloc have also repeatedly called on the government to release a fiscal update.
Finance Minister Bill Morneau cancelled plans to release a budget in March owing to the economic uncertainty caused by the pandemic. He has responded to calls for a fiscal update by stating that the government is waiting until a clearer picture emerges of the economic fallout of the coronavirus.
The Finance Department released a report on May 27 that said direct federal spending announcements related to the pandemic add up to $152.8-billion. The PBO has also said that when the new spending is combined with lower tax revenue due to reduced economic activity, the current federal deficit could exceed $250-billion.
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