Tuesday, March 17, 2015

How Does Canada's Budgeting Process Undermine Parliamentary Democracy?

If you weren't aware of it before, in reading Brent Rathgeber's Irresponsible Government you may be stunned to learn that what could quite accurately be described as Canada's "real" federal budget is essentially self-approving.

At first glance that doesn't sound correct. After all, the federal government presents a federal budget each year. In years past the late former Finance Minister Jim Flaherty would go out and buy a new pair of shoes. There would be a short debate, a few days of acrimony from opposition leaders, then the budget would be passed.

Then the media loses interest and goes home.

And why wouldn't they? What's left to see?

For the media, not much at all. For any elected MPs who sit on a parliamentary committee overseeing a specific department, there's lots left to see: the tabling of the estimates.

If you've never heard of this you're unfortunately not alone. That so many Canadians haven't heard of this is nothing less than a cataclysmic failure of the media and other educational institutions that we count on to keep us informed.

Most simply put, estimates are each department's spending plans for the next year, laid out on a line-by-line basis. MPs have a very brief time to examine them, then 21 supply days in the house to debate them and propose a maximum of 14 amendments to the estimates.

In order to be formally adopted, however, the estimates merely have to be voted upon by the committee in question, and the adoption of that estimate reported to Parliament. But here's where the entire process becomes largely irrelevant: if the committee doesn't report adoption of the estimate back to Parliament by the deadline, the committee is deemed to have reported and the estimate is adopted.

If it sounds like the budget presented in Parliament is largely for show, there's a reason for that.

If the media really thinks the federal budget is the most significant portion of the process they could be forgiven for being fooled. After all, there is no sequestration period prior to the tabling of the estimates during which the media may examine the estimates, then later report to the public on the plans detailed therein.

It's been this way largely since 1971: Canada, a Parliamentary democracy under the principle of responsible government, in which the executive is supposed to be accountable to the legislature, spends its taxpayer dollars in a manner not nearly as dissimilar from executive-centric France as we may have preferred to think.

Compounding the problem is that the vast majority of Parliamentarians lack the requisite skills to glean the necessary information out of these documents, and many of them lack even the motivation. So when it comes to how government spends taxpayer dollars, Parliament is effectively asleep at the switch.

So how is this problem, which Parliament doesn't even seem to recognize that it has, solved?

Well, perhaps the simplest way to solve it is not to table the estimates merely for members of each committee, but instead table them for the general public. Then, concerned citizens can contact their MP -- hoping that they've taken care to elect a good one -- to draw attention to their concerns.

If the public is engaged, Parliament will have no choice but to be similarly engaged. It may slow down the process of government spending taxpayer dollars, but do we really want a government that's in a hurry to spend our money?

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