It's Time to Axe the Guillotine Clause on Public Spending
by Margret Kopala

Published by the Ottawa Citizen, February 28, 2004

Despite protestations about being more open and accountable, the Liberal government slipped the budget estimates to the House of Commons on Tuesday - a week ahead of schedule.

Timed to coincide with announcements about suspending heads of crown corporations, the estimates escaped the attention of most of the media and an even larger part of the public. Adding insult to injury, current rules give committees 20 sitting days to study the estimates but for ten of those days, the House is not sitting.

None of this surprises the former Alberta member of Parliament, Terry Nugent, who represented the Edmonton-Strathcona riding from 1958 to 1968.

A fierce proponent of empowering MPs and an equally fierce opponent of the ‘guillotine clause’ that limits debate to 20 days on budget estimates without the need for government to provide redress or answers, Nugent told a national assembly of Tories in 1995 how failure in both these areas is the primary cause of Canada’s financial and budgetary woes.

Much like a household budget, estimates are the government’s way of providing details about the coming year’s expenditures before they are finalized in the finance minister’s budget. The estimates are vetted in committees where, ostensibly, they receive rigorous scrutiny and affirm the government’s good and honest grip on public finances.

This week’s developments demonstrate how, for this year’s estimates, there won’t be enough time for such scrutiny. More to the point, such scrutiny doesn’t apparently work even when time permits. Indeed, so porous is the process – which has included the right of the prime minister to stack committees and appoint their chairs – that the scandals in the sponsorship program, HRDC and the gun registry ballooned to the proportions of which we are now only too aware! When these are discovered by the auditor general, it’s too late for action. Worse, and to Parliament’s further detriment, it places the auditor general in the untenable, de facto role of Official Opposition on budgetary matters.

Nugent anticipated this in 1995 when he reminded his listeners that at one time MPs really did subject departmental budget estimates to rigorous scrutiny. “MPs were effective because unlike cabinet ministers or senior bureaucrats they have no turf or jurisdictional fiefdoms to cultivate. But they lost the power to control government spending when the guillotine clause came into effect in 1968.”

Of course, it was during the Trudeau era when the ‘trained seal’ and ‘nobodies’ school of thought so infamously came to characterize the work of MPs. The guillotine clause was at least one factor in making those words reality.

Arguably, it also opened the door to Canada’s deficit crisis of the nineties, its growing debt, its lack of control on spending, its failure to meet healthcare and military defence needs and, ultimately, the HRDC, gun registry and sponsorship scandals.

The way to restore power to MPs, Nugent said, is to revoke the guillotine clause for at least one estimate.

To the extent it preempts long winded, unnecessarily partisan debate, the guillotine clause is useful. What’s truly elegant about Nugent’s proposal is that it be revoked for at least one estimate. If that estimate is chosen by random selection, with no advance knowledge of which is destined for debate, all ministers and their departments would have to prepare to defend their budgets. Everyone would have to be on their toes.

Earlier this month, Jacques Saada, the government House Leader who is also responsible for Democratic Reform, tabled his Action Plan. The chapter on estimates commits departments to publish their accountability reports on their web sites. This may promote greater transparency but by offering little more than “providing incentives for greater review” and “improving scrutiny” of estimates by committees, the Action Plan condemns them to obscurity – and continued abuse.

In a similar attempt at remedial action, Treasury Board President Reg Alcock this week announced several initiatives to address management and accountability problems in government. These include the creation of a panel of the “best minds” in the country to craft a new model for ministerial responsibility and the hiring of a leading public administration expert, Donald Savoie.

Unlike Saada and Alcock, Nugent’s 1995 proposal is both concrete and practical.

Margret Kopala’s column on western perspectives appears weekly.

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