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Why we must restore Parliament’s control of the public purse

There are few tasks more important in our democracy than the control of our public purse.

Our new federal government has promised reforms to strengthen Parliament, as well as a deficit-financed fiscal expansion that includes large spending increases for public infrastructure. We believe increased investment and genuine scrutiny should go hand in hand. While most of us think the buck stops with a prime minister and the cabinet, the actual duty to scrutinize and approve government spending and changes to the tax code rests with the MPs we send to the House of Commons.

At least, that's the way it's supposed to work. But by any measure, Parliament has abandoned even the pretense of reviewing the government's spending plans. What we get in its place is largely an empty ritual where MPs simply say yea or nay on votes when commanded to do so by their party whip. It's not that our MPs lack the necessary desire or intellect. Indeed, individual MPs and parliamentary committees have long recoiled over a system that frustrates their attempts to come to grips with government finances.

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But the government's accounts are so convoluted that even the experts are baffled. And the process under which parliamentarians are expected to dig into the spending estimates is designed for failure.

Did you know: The federal budget, which outlines the government's fiscal strategy and planning framework, and the estimates documents, which outline departmental spending plans, are not consistent? You cannot add up department spending plans and get to budget totals. It is well nigh impossible for mere mortals to follow money.

Did you know: MPs vote on departmental authorities related to large totals such as operations, capital and transfers, yet the information frameworks on spending and evaluation centre on program activities (e.g., farm financial programs, search and rescue and so on)? Cabinet ministers can move resources across specific programs without going back to Parliament for permission. These are weak control gates.

Did you know: MPs spend little time reviewing departmental spending plans before they vote? In fact, because of the "deemed rule," spending estimates are deemed to have been approved unless there is evidence to the contrary. There are few jobs in which you are deemed to have done your work when you haven't lifted a finger. Also, there is no regular scrutiny and approval on the billions of dollars of resources targeted to Canadians through tax expenditures. If the control of finance is the great task of modern parliamentary government, you would never believe it by examining our budgetary processes.

We need to take advantage of the new government's platform commitment to transparency. It has promised positive changes to information laws, the release of costing documents on new proposals, consistent budget documents and a stronger parliamentary budget office. But it's not unusual for political parties to promise openness while in opposition and then fall short of the mark when in government. This time, let's hold the Liberals to their promises. We do not need to reinvent the wheel. In 2012, MPs laid out proposals to fix the processes, the structure of the estimates and the support they need to carry out their fiduciary responsibilities.

Restoring Parliament's control of the public purse is a fundamental goal. We need to enhance transparency and scrutiny as the government increases spending on new initiatives. The fact that the current system has been designed by successive governments and the bureaucracy to deliberately take MPs out of the equation makes transformation more difficult, but all the more necessary.

Kevin Page holds the Jean Luc Pepin Chair at the University of Ottawa and was Canada's first parliamentary budget officer. Pat Martin was an MP for 18 years and was most recently chair of the standing committee on government operations and estimates. Bob Plamondon, FCPA, is an author and consultant.

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