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Put Board of Internal Economy in Charge of AG Budget

 

CIVIL CIRCLES

By Paco Francoli
The Hill Times

May 23rd, 2005

 

House committee says Parliamentary officers should negotiate budgets with the House

 

Parliamentary officers such as Auditor General Sheila Fraser should no longer have to go hand in hand to Treasury Board to get their budgets approved, and should instead negotiate their spending plans directly through a Parliamentary body, such as the secretive Commons Board of Internal Economy.

 

This is the key recommendation contained in a new report from the House Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics Committee. After months of hearings, the all-party group found that the current funding mechanism is rife with potential conflict-of-interest situations and must be nixed.

 

The committee, chaired by the ailing Tory MP David Chatters who has cancer, is treading on well-trodden ground.

 

Indeed, calls for this kind of reform have been made countless times around Parliament Hill. None have resulted in firm action so far, despite persistent complaints from Parliamentary officers, including Ms. Fraser, who are unhappy about having to submit their budget plans to Treasury Board, a government agency she audits.

 

The committee believes that, by sidelining the government, all appearances of conflict of interest will evaporate.

 

That includes the sight of Access to Information czar John Reid complaining before Parliament, year after year, that the government won't give him the money he needs to meet his statutory obligations.

 

This past November, Mr. Reid told the House committee that his office is in a "financial crisis" because "resources have not kept pace with the workload that is imposed on the office despite repeated attempts to convince Treasury Board to properly fund the full range of the commissioner's mandate."

 

Officers of Parliament are responsible directly to Parliament rather than to the federal government or to an individual minister, something that emphasizes their independence from the government of the day.

 

Not all of them have the same funding process. Ethics Commissioner Bernard Shapiro, whose position was created only last year, has his budget approved by the Speaker of the House who then relays it to Treasury Board to be rubber-stamped.

 

The committee believes a similar mechanism should be created for Ms. Fraser, Mr. Reid and Privacy Commission Jennifer Stoddart. It wants the Commons Board of Internal Economy, which is the governing body of the House of Commons, to serve as the Parliamentary budget-determination body on a trial basis for the next two years.

 

A sluggish public service?

 

The standoff in the House of Commons over the past month or so has had the very obvious and noticeable impact of paralysing almost all business before Parliament.

 

Less visible is how the shenanigans have impacted the lives of senior federal public servants who many say have already been dragging their feet for months as a result of the uncertainty surrounding this minority government led by Prime Minister Paul Martin.

 

According to Michael Teeter, a principal at the government relations firm Hillwatch Inc., who has nearly three decades of experience inside and outside of government, the public service has been sluggish around certain key government reforms, particularly those related to procurement and real estate management.

 

"I don't want to exaggerate that, but certainly from where I sit, these bureaucratic initiatives... are going extremely slowly," he told The Hill Times last week.

 

Mr. Teeter added that the threat of a snap election, which lessened considerably after the Liberal government survived last Thursday's dramatic budget vote, could slow down matters even more.

 

"Certainly, that's not going to speed up at all at this point in time, nor during a writ period."

 

The reforms Mr. Teeter was talking about were announced in February with much fanfare. They're part of the government's ambitious five-year $10.9-billion cost-cutting initiative outlined in the budget. The savings will flow from a new procurement plan ($2.6-billion); improved property management ($1-billion); the creation of a "one-stop" shop called Service Canada ($3-billion); and, various departmental program cutbacks and administrative efficiencies ($4-billion).

 

The money represents about 30 per cent of new funding priorities outlined in the budget, and is the brainchild of Revenue Minister John McCallum who, as chair of Cabinet's Expenditure Review Committee, worked for nearly a year on the project.

 

The savings are supposed to be spread out over five years, but Mr. Teeter said there has been "an incredible slippage" and that things are not on track around some of the reforms.

 

"I think that some of the reforms articulating in the expenditure review process... the rate of implementation is far less than they themselves anticipated or have articulated, and I think that that's probably human nature," said the former PMO staffer who now specializes in trade and regulatory areas at Hillwatch Inc.

 

However, Mr. Teeter added that some parts of the bureaucracy are just churning along, particularly Treasury Board. From pursing the Canada Gazette over the past six weeks, he said he's noticed that there are a lot more government regulations and policy consultations in the works.

 

"There's been a real effort to try to accelerate those things. So Treasury Board has been very busy over the last four to six weeks approving a lot of these proposed regulations or proposed policy reviews. This is quite deliberate and it's a good thing to do, despite what others might suggest, because it keeps the machinery of government going," he said.

 

John Reid's time is up

 

MPs on the House Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics Committee want Prime Minister Paul Martin to extend Info czar John Reid's term, which expires this July 1, for one year.

 

They made the recommendation in a report tabled in the House earlier this month, citing the "uncertainty of this Parliament and the need for stability" as the need for quick action.

 

The all-party committee has an obvious soft spot for Mr. Reid, a former Liberal MP who now investigates complaints about the administration of Canada's Access to Information Act. Since assuming the job, Mr. Reid has not shied away from haranguing the government about its "culture of secrecy."

 

But it's less clear whether the Martin government, which has displayed an astonishing lack of focus when it comes to making appointments, wants him to stick around.

 

Though it's true Mr. Reid has been a fierce critic of the federal government, he's tempered his faultfinding somewhat since the arrival of the Martin government in December 2003. Will it matter to the Martin government is an open question?

 

francoli@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times





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