Resolved, that a sum not exceeding $89,567,384.33, being one-twelfth of the amount of each of the several items to be voted, as set forth in the main estimates for the fiscal year ending 31st March, 1949, laid before the House of Commons at the present session of parliament, and in addition thereto the sum of $17,982,745.67, being one-sixth of the amount of items 43, 151, 154, 155, 447, 541 and 542 of the said estimates be granted to His Majesty on account for the fiscal year ending 31st March, 1949.
I do not want the minister to say that the question I am about to raise is one which should be dealt with by the rules committee, of which I am a member; so I anticipate and protect myself beforehand. Has the government given serious consideration this session or in previous sessions to the whole question of dealing with the estimates of the various departments in a much more efficient way? Time after time, in session after session, members on both sides of the house have contended that our system of dealing with the estimates would not commend itself to any business handling even a fraction of the amount that this house is asked to vote from year to year. This is a matter that rests with the government rather than with other parties or with private members, because it would have to be a matter of government policy before any other system could be brought before the rules committee or before parliament.
The estimates of the Department of External Affairs are the only ones, outside of the railway estimates, that are dealt with in
Ways and Means-Interim Supply
detail by committees before they are dealt with by the house. If the minister has carefully scrutinized the work of these committees he must have found that they have done a reasonably good job in investigating the details of the expenditures of money by the departments concerned.
Suggestions have been made from time to time. One was that the various committees of the house might have referred to them at each session the estimates of the department whose activities are closely related to the kind of work that they are supposed to do. On the other hand, it has been suggested that a committee on estimates ought to be set up in the house which would deal with the question of estimates generally. That would be different from the public accounts committee, which, as I understand it, considers the auditor general's report. On every ground it would be distinctly different from the ordinary committees. I am not here to advocate one scheme or plan as against another, but I do advocate a change in a system which must have worked all right when we had a few million dollars to vote year after year but is not satisfactory now. We have the same machinery and we are doing the same thing in parliament that we did when I first came here twelve years ago-and twelve years is a short time compared with the length of time that some other hon. members on both sides of the house have been here. We are spending at least five times as much as we did when I first came here, and passing appropriations of five times as much money as we did at that time. Surely the situation calls for some reform.
The minister and the government might give serious consideration to this matter, because I think they will find on all sides a strong feeling of approval, of some change. People who are in business, people who are used to handling large sums of money and seeing that it is properly spent, must find this kind of arrangement antiquated, to say the least, and certainly not always productive of the best kind of audit and examination of our public expenditures. I ask the minister if he will consider the suggestion. Having brought it to his attention I think I have at least discharged part of my duty in connection with a serious matter.
The hon. member for Peel has raised an interesting and important question, one to which, speaking for myself, I have given a good deal of consideration. It is not easy, though, to find what would be an acceptable alternative method of dealing with estimates. I am told that in the British parliament they do not give the detailed consideration to estimates that we do in our house; that
the estimates of the service departments are always considered in some detail, and several days are set aside for that purpose, but that the estimates of almost every department are simply passed en bloc. No opportunity is given for detailed consideration. Each year certain departments are selected and the estimates are discussed in some detail. That is one method. As hon. members will appreciate, it is not always the estimate which provides for the largest amount that provokes the greatest discussion. An estimate of an expenditure of 810,000 or 815,000 may promote more discussion and arouse more interest among members than one which involves $50,000,000 or $60,000,000. Therefore one cannot take the size of the estimate as a test of the amount of time that should be given to its discussion. The impression I have got from members is that in respect to various departments- fisheries, agriculture, trade and commerce, or whatever it may be-where special interest lies, they feel that they want an opportunity in the house to discuss these estimates and get information from the minister. I have not been given the impression that members would be satisfied to have these estimates considered and passed by a small committee.
Yes, and I do not think it would save much time to refer them to a committee. I simply mention that to point out some of the difficulties with which I know all hon. members are familiar. All I can say is that I have not yet been able to think of a solution which would be generally acceptable. Perhaps that inspiration may come to me later.
The minister has referred-no doubt correctly -to the substantial difference in practice which prevails in the British house. Has he fully considered what I understand to be the very different procedure which they adopt before the estimates are finally brought down to the house? I think he will agree it is different, and perhaps he knows more about the actual difference than I do. I suggest that is well worthy of consideration from our point of view.
It is not greatly different. Of course these estimates receive long, detailed and painstaking consideration by treasury board. May I say that my opening gambit to each member who came into treasury board with these estimates was: "The only savings that will be made in expenditures this year will
Ways and Means-Interim Supply
be made in this room". I was referring to my office in the east block, where we were holding the meeting. I said: "There will not be any savings made when these estimates are being considered by the house, because in my experience that is not the place where reductions of expenditures are made. Any savings on public expenditures will be made right inside this room." I simply mention this to show that that is where the estimates of expenditures receive detailed and painstaking consideration. I may be mistaken, but so far as I am aware our method does not differ substantially from that under which estimates of expenditures are prepared in Great Britain. The estimates are prepared by the departments. They are submitted to the treasury, and then are settled by the treasury, and by the government finally, before being presented to parliament. That is the procedure which is followed here.
May I point out that one of the provisions of the proposed bill is to provide an additional one-sixth of certain items, namely, items 43, 151, 154, 155, 447, 541 and 542. I should like to say a word or two about items 154 and 155. which relate to the House of Commons itself.
The Minister of Finance has already indicated that because of the heavy sessional expenses of the House of Commons it is necessary for him to ask for a little more interim money for these items than for the others. A motion is before the House of Commons calling for the approval of certain salary increases. I am not going to discuss that at this time; I might be out of order if I did; at any rate I approve that motion and therefore I do not need to discuss it. But I do wish to point out that the increases proposed do not cover all the employees of the House of Commons, as was promised to us on March 24. I hope that in the additional increases which were suggested yesterday by the Secretary of State consideration will be given to some of our House of Commons employees who are not now covered.
My reasons for speaking about this matter at this time are these. First, if one does not get a word in on the matter before final decision is made, it is too late when the motion is before us. Furthermore, the Minister of Finance is a member of treasury board, but, as I understand it, the Secretary of State is not, and the only matter before us on his motion-
Order. Probably I should call the attention of the committee to the fact that we are now in committee of ways and means. These items have been before the committee of supply and have been passed by that committee. This resolution is to the effect that the sums referred to therein be granted out of the consolidated revenue fund of Canada. I hardly think that the discussion thus far in this committee has been strictly in order.
I have one question about the proposed setting up of committees to consider the estimates. Some time ago a motion was made in the house that we adopt the British practice of sending the defence estimates to a defence committee. I know we have not set up a defence committee here, but the defence estimates are some of the largest and most important spending items. Has any progress been made in this regard at cabinet level?