Good afternoon, colleagues. Welcome to the meeting of the Standing Joint Committee on the Library of Parliament.
Before I turn to the witnesses, colleagues, I want to give you a little bit of a game plan for the next few weeks. There seems to be some confusion as to whether Parliament will be sitting next Thursday or not. We have been told that the Senate is not sitting. Apparently you have been told that the House of Commons is sitting. However, since this is a joint committee, it is not appropriate for us to sit if in fact one chamber is not sitting. So we will not be sitting next Thursday.
The dates I want to put before you, colleagues, are May 7 and May 14. I would like your input. We must complete the estimates of the Library of Parliament. That is one of the functions we must do, and we must have the estimates done by about the middle of May. So my suggestion is that on May 7 we deal with those main estimates and any other business before us and then, on May 14, have what I hope will be the concluding meeting of this committee on the study of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, and have the chief librarian and the Parliamentary Budget Officer here. We would start with the Parliamentary Budget Officer for the first hour, and then move to the chief librarian for the second hour.
There was some discussion about having those two at the same time. I have to say to you I don't recommend that. One of them works for the other. I don't think it is appropriate to ask them to sit at the table at exactly the same time. I think they should be separate and apart.
Do I have your agreement, colleagues, for that work plan?
Some hon. members: Agreed.
The Joint Chair (Senator Sharon Carstairs): All right, we can turn to our first set of witnesses this morning. We have, from the Privy Council Office, Mr. Karl Salgo and Ms. Roberta Santi. I don't know which one of you wants to begin first, or which one of you is speaking—or if you're both speaking.
Mr. Salgo, perhaps you can tell me how we are to proceed.
Good afternoon, and thank you, Senator Carstairs and Mr. Goldring.
Good afternoon. In our invitation to appear before the Committee today, the Joint Clerk of the Committee asked that we speak about the difference between agents of Parliament and officers of Parliament. First, I would like to say a few words about the Machinery of Government Secretariat at the Privy Council Office where both M. Salgo and I work.
Among other responsibilities, we provide advice on the creation or winding up of departments and other entities that form the executive part of government. We do not advise on the internal organization of entities; that is, we would not be involved in how the deputy head of a department or agency chooses to structure and oversee the entity internally. And of course, the structure and operation of Parliament, such as the role of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, is beyond our mandate.
With respect to the distinction between agents and officers of Parliament, it is true that the terminology is often used in very different ways. When we refer to agents of Parliament, we mean a specific list of individuals who have oversight of the executive, or who have unique and independent functions separate from the executive, and who report directly to Parliament.
Specifically, we mean the following individuals: the Auditor General, the Commissioner of Official Languages, the Information Commissioner, the Privacy Commissioner, the Chief Electoral Officer, the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner and the Commissioner of Lobbying.
In addition to being independent of the executive, these individuals function outside the institution of Parliament, in the sense that they and their staff are not employees of Parliament.
Agents of Parliament are appointed by the Governor in Council, following parliamentary approval processes. To ensure their independence, they have security of tenure, with fixed terms, and are removable only for cause on the address of both houses.
The appointment of the Chief Electoral Officer is an exception. Reflecting his distinctive role with respect to the elected chamber, he is appointed exclusively by the House. I would also add that all agents of Parliament are accounting officers, as set out in the Financial Administration Act—something that officers of Parliament are not.
Compared with an agent of Parliament, the concept of officer is somewhat broader and more generic. However, when we speak of officers of Parliament, we refer to individuals and functions that operate within the institution of Parliament.
Examples of officers of Parliament include: the Clerk of the House, the Clerk of the Senate, the Law Clerks and Parliamentary Counsel of both the House and Senate, the Parliamentary Librarian, the Sergeant-at-Arms, the Usher of the Black Rod and the Senate Ethics Officer.
These individuals and their staff members are employees of Parliament. The Board of Internal Economy, the Senate Standing Committee on Internal Economy, Budgets and Administration, or the Speaker of the House of Commons or Senate, or both Speakers, consider their budgets and are responsible for their oversight.
The Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, who administers both the code of conduct for members of the House and the Conflict of Interest Act applicable to members of the executive, is arguably something of a hybrid, both an agent of Parliament and an officer of Parliament. Beyond this usage, the term “officer” is also used more generically as in the sense of the Parliamentary Budget Officer. In this context the Federal Accountability Act amended the Parliament of Canada Act to create the position of Parliamentary Budget Officer, not a parliamentary budget office.
As an officer of the Library of Parliament, the Parliamentary Budget Officer reports to the Parliamentary Librarian, who has both the direction and management of the library. Within this structure, the Parliamentary Budget Officer has been given a mandate to provide Parliament with independent analysis about the state of the nation's finances, the government's estimates, and trends in the national economy; on request by a parliamentary committee, undertake research into the nation's finances and economy or the estimates of the government; on request by a member of committee of either chamber, estimate the financial cost of any proposal relating to a matter within federal jurisdiction.
In support of this mandate, the Parliamentary Budget Officer has been given a number of legal authorities. This structure is comparable to certain models in the executive where officials have a measure of independence, such as ombudsman, or statutory authorities such as the competition commissioner, yet operate administratively as part of a ministerial department.
The direction and management of the Library of Parliament, including the Parliamentary Budget Officer, are wholly independent of the executive. They rest with the Parliamentary Librarian, who reports to the Speakers of the House and Senate.
Hence the executive has no role in determining how the library, including the Parliamentary Budget Officer, operates or discharges its mandate.
That concludes my opening statement. We would be pleased to respond to questions.
Thank you for your statement.
I've been reflecting on the Parliamentary Budget Officer's position. I've also gone back to some of the announcements that were made when the Parliamentary Budget Officer was put in place.
To refresh your memory, the Prime Minister said that he had created an independent position, that this position was approved by Parliament, which was responsible for managing it; and then he said again, on September 16, 2008, that the budget officer was an independent officer.
I'll also read this quote from :
The parliamentary budget officer is designed not so much as the academic you quoted...but...to better equip members of Parliament to hold the government accountable through Parliament, the public, the media and through involvement. That accountability is a good thing.
From that, then, and seeing where we are now, looking so quickly at the role and the mandate of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, it is not clear to me that the position is independent and, further, that the budget officer should be communicating his analysis directly to Canadians. As stated by John Baird, , or, on the other hand.... Some members of this committee last time were critical of Mr. Page commenting in the media. It appears to me that he was merely fulfilling his mandate under the letter and spirit of the legislation. The direction was expressed in clear statements made before he was appointed by the Prime Minister, and then when he was appointed.
So is there a change now in the thinking of what the Parliamentary Budget Officer should be within the PCO?
Thank you very much for your presentation.
I certainly agree with your comments around the idea of the confusion as to what's independent and what isn't. The concern, at least on the part of opposition--and let's be clear, how you see this depends a lot on where you sit--is that it's more parliamentary gymnastics than confusing. What it boils down to is an analysis of exactly what “independent” means. Of course, former U.S. President Bill Clinton spent a fair bit of time arguing what the definition of “is” is. We can spend a lot of time on this, and I think that's ultimately where we're going to end up.
Here's my problem. One of the mandates is to “provide Parliament with independent analysis about the state of the nation's finances”--and I'm reading that directly from your presentation. I don't think you need to have a doctorate in political science to understand that if you don't have the resources available to get the information you need to provide an independent analysis, de facto it's not an independent analysis because it's limited by how much research the officer was able to do.
Can you give me your thoughts on that?
I would reiterate that this position is an independent officer of the executive, number one, reporting to the Parliamentary Librarian.
On the issue of resources, as you can appreciate, I don't want to comment directly on this in my public service capacity, but I'll talk about it in a more generic context of what one would find within the executive branch.
There are always tensions around bodies that have a certain level of independence. There's tension around resource issues, that a person needs a certain amount of resources to do their job. The reality in public administration is that there is always a challenge function, a management function, and administrative oversight on the use of resources. I think one can say that the provision of resources is not infinite, it's finite. I think everybody would like more resources to do their job. I would like more resources to do my job.
I respond that way with all sincerity. An office has to have sufficient resources to its job, but there's a point...especially since the Parliamentary Librarian has the management and direction in law with respect to the Parliamentary Budget Office. There's a responsibility for the Parliamentary Librarian, as I read the legislation, to have a role in the administration of that function, which does not necessarily mean it makes it “not independent”.
It also doesn't necessarily mean it's the right way to go, just because the law dictates that it needs to go that way. What we're trying to do is step outside the framework of the law and ask if what we have right now serves us best.
Remember, when we talk about providing independent financial analysis to Parliament, we really are talking to the opposition. There are some exceptions, I grant you, on some particular files with government members, but having sat on both sides of the House, I can tell you about the need for independent financial analysis that you can actually hold up and see the bottom line in and, from that bottom line, ask for the following or make a following point. It very much matters to opposition about the independence.
I've been at a number of these meetings, and we've dealt with it in the public accounts committee too, but I'm becoming convinced that for all the work we're doing, what it's really going to come down to is whether it's the will of Parliament that it become an independent agent of Parliament or whether it will remain under the administrative dictates of someone else. That's really where we are, and everything else is the detail about that.
I understand what you're saying and I respect that it is the process. I don't accept that it necessarily gives us what the intent of the legislation was in terms of providing all members of Parliament with adequate information so that we can have fulsome--hopefully--somewhat intelligent debates around the issues of the day.
Many of the officers and agents of Parliament are GIC appointees, so I think you have to look at what we mean by GIC appointee. The way I understand it, in the context of our constitutional monarchy, the final sign-off on any Governor in Council appointment is the Governor General. Parliament consists of the Queen, represented in Canada by the Governor General, and then by both the Senate and the House.
In a sense the final sign-off comes within the parliamentary context, but within that, the way I read the legislation, the Parliamentary Librarian is to come up with three names that would be considered as possible nominations. So my understanding is that there is significant input, and then final GIC sign-off.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
I think people are trying to stir up a tempest in a teapot. The government is still committed to having a Parliamentary Budget Officer who reports to the Parliamentary Librarian. The PBO should be given the budget required to hire staff and do his work according to the directives and the powers that were assigned to him when the position was created. Let him do his work without getting in his way. Without reducing the budgets of the Library of Parliament, let us give him the funding he needs to hire staff, be free and independent and do his work as efficiently as possible.
I would not like to be in Mr. Page's shoes today. He wants to do his work in a professional fashion, but he is hampered by a committee that is trying to determine whether he is doing his work properly, that is discussing what should and should not be done, and so on.
Madam Chair, this is a comment, but I would like to see the committee wrap up this subject fairly quickly. All this committee is doing, really, is nitpicking.
I have questions, again along the same line of thought.
I particularly enjoyed the testimony of Mr. Darling, because I found it to be refreshingly candid, so I'll try to copy a bit of that approach, Madam Santi, and Mr. Salgo.
Let's call a spade a spade. If the government is not happy with an appointee, any appointee, it has basically two choices, or three: not to say anything, and just to live with them; to remove them, if they're an appointment at pleasure; or to starve them.
Am I missing any other options?
I don't know if there are other options. There may be.
Hon. Mauril Bélanger: May we know what you think they are?
Ms. Roberta Santi: Well, I think there would be recognition that this legislation, as it currently stands, reflects the will of Parliament. I think that's very important.
Secondly, in the context of the independence of this officer, one of the things I didn't mention is that there is a specific legal or statutory mandate provided in the legislation. There is also acknowledgement in the legislation that this position should be filled by someone who is recommended, out of a list of three, provided by the parliamentary librarian.
So in this context, I don't think I would want to comment on the options available to government, because I think one would have to look at the construct of this legislation and look at the overall situation. And I really don't think I could go there, because I'd certainly like to reflect on that question a bit more, because it's not a simple question.
Seeing no further questions, I want to thank Mr. Salgo and particularly Ms. Santi, since you were on the hot seat, so to speak. Mr. Salgo, you got off a little bit more lightly. So I thank you both for coming and giving us the value of your very considered opinion.
Colleagues, at the last meeting we had a motion presented by the Honourable Gurbax Malhi, so we've had the required 48 hours of notice.
I want to read the motion, though, because I want to make sure we are all clear as to exactly what this motion has to say, and then I want some direction from this committee as to how you want the committee to proceed.
The motion reads as follows:
That, in the interest of ensuring accountability and transparency in government spending, as well as adequate and informed parliamentary oversight of government expenditures, we therefore regret the budgetary shortfalls faced by the Parliamentary Budget Office and (a) urge the government to increase the budget of the Parliamentary Budget Officer to previously committed funding levels, and to do so, (b) without reducing the existing resources of the Library of Parliament.
Colleagues, I want you to take particular note of (b), because I think that is extremely important. I think if you are going to vote for a motion without that, then what you are really saying is that money must be taken from the work the Library of Parliament is currently doing. I'm not sure anybody wants to say that, and I thank Mr. Malhi for putting in (b) for that particular purpose.
Colleagues, what do you wish us to do with this? Do you wish to have debate?
Thank you, Chair. My argument is actually the same one I would have used on the main motion.
I'm in favour of the motion, and I don't think that comes as a shock to anybody. In fact, I'm hoping we go a heck of a lot further; but that day has yet to be upon us.
In fairness, in the hope that we're not creating a circus within a circus within a circus, because we started out with a circus and this group is meant to help unravel that and to get this sorted out.... But it seems to me procedurally—and I just pose this question to colleagues in a non-partisan way—if the committee hasn't yet concluded all of its hearings, is it not a little bit like the public accounts committee, where we have a lot of hearings and then we do our report writing, and where we really wouldn't dream of taking action or making recommendations or conclusions as a group in a final vote without completing all of our deliberations and hearing from all of the witnesses?
The only thing I'm asking is whether or not we should set this aside for now. Are we getting ahead of ourselves? To the best of my knowledge, I know the Auditor General is not in until one o'clock. I don't believe Mr. Page has been here yet. I stand to be corrected, but if he hasn't—and I don't know if the librarian has been here or not—and we're still to hear from some of the main principals, to me it just makes sense that if we are going to try to come to a conclusion that we can all live with and can get on with business, sending the motion to the steering committee would be an awful lot of time and effort for a procedural thing, really.
Having said that, I just leave it with colleagues that maybe the best thing to do is have this thing wait, and then when we get into report writing, then we can thrash out all of these things and find out what the majority and minority positions are.
I leave that for colleagues to consider. Thanks, Chair.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
Mr. Christopherson and I agree on this. That was the position I took when Mr. Plamondon put forward a similar motion, and it is that, given that we've been asked by the two Speakers to look into a difficult situation, we should perhaps finish that exercise before coming to any conclusion. I think that stands by itself.
It may very well be that at the end of the day this committee will want to recommend an increase in the current allocations for the library or for the Parliamentary Budget Officer or for both. It may very well be that the committee may choose to do that on the condition that there are protocols set in place for the use of current resources of the library by the budgetary officer. So there may be a bunch of things we may conclude, but we haven't yet concluded that.
So I'm very much in favour of the suggestion of Mr. Christopherson.
There is no rush, it is not a national emergency.
We will have a meeting, I gather, Madam Chair, with the budgetary officer in early May, is that right?
I will be quick, Chair, but in fairness, I had my name on the list prior to your wanting to move on, but I respect that.
I was just going to say that if we just send it to the steering committee without resolving the issue of whether or not we want to vote before the hearings are concluded, we're just again spinning more wheels. Ultimately, it all has to go to the steering committee, and they would give a recommendation, I would hope, as to how we are proceeding, including the finalizing, ultimately, of our report.
But it seems to me, Chair, with great respect, that the issue before us is this: are we going to be voting on recommendations and positions throughout, or will we hold them all off to the end, or will they be a hybrid of one-offs? I would suggest that we take a position that says all recommendations and decisions will be voted at the report-generating stage and ask that the steering committee be empowered to coordinate that, which is their role anyway.
But I really think if you just send it without our deciding that, Chair, we're going to be back here again with or without a recommendation.
Thank you very much, Madam Chair.
We are very pleased to be here today to participate in your study of the Parliamentary Budget Officer. Joining me at the table is Doug Timmins, Assistant Auditor General. My opening remarks will be very brief. I have read with interest the transcripts of the committee's debates so far, and there are two points we would like to discuss.
The first refers to questions raised about whether or not the Parliamentary Budget Officer should be situated within the Office of the Auditor General. The act clearly states that the Parliamentary Budget Officer provides research and support to committees and individual members of the House or the Senate. Therefore, it is entirely appropriate for the Parliamentary Budget Officer to be located within the Library of Parliament and not within my office.
The mandate of the officer also includes assisting committees when they consider the estimates of government. I understand that this was one of the main reasons for creating this position, and we believe it to be a very important role. Over the years, we have commented that parliamentarians need that type of in-house support in order to fulfill this very important function of Parliament.
Related to this is the question of independence. Like us, in order to be credible, the PBO must be independent of government. Clearly, the Library is independent from government. Consequently, the current arrangement with the PBO residing within the Library also protects the independence of the PBO.
The second point that I believe deserves attention is how the Parliamentary Budget Officer reports his work. While the mandate as described in the Parliament of Canada Act is silent on this issue, there are procedures within the Library of Parliament that govern the release of information. The committee may wish to provide guidance to the PBO on this issue.
For example, in our case, the Auditor General Act specifies that we may report up to four times per year, and our reports are tabled only when Parliament is sitting. Further, we have our own external communications practices that are designed to ensure that we are perceived as non-partisan. They include, among other things, guidance about our external communications during elections. We would be pleased to discuss our practices with members of the committee.
With that, I would like to conclude my opening remarks. We would be very pleased to answer any questions committee members have.
The overriding principle that guides us is to say nothing publicly that we have not already said to Parliament. For example, when we release a report, we have two lock-ups preceding tabling of a report--one for media, and one for parliamentarians. I always make my presentation to parliamentarians before I ever address the media.
We have a policy on speeches. We have selection criteria on which organizations we will talk to. We will only discuss reports that have been tabled. We are even very cautious talking about audits that may be under way if we have not already informed parliamentarians of that fact. During an election campaign, as a general rule we do not make speeches. We may on occasion give one. I can remember giving one to a group of internal auditors, but it was very clear there would be no media present, no journalists, no one, and all requests would be vetted by our communications group.
We are also very careful to never comment on policy and party platforms, and to never give people the perception that we may be partisan in some way.
Understood, but for purposes of looking at it from a thousand feet, you're the one who calls the shots.
One of the issues for us keeps coming back to independence, and one of the things I see happening is that we move our focus from what maybe would be the best, and then we hover back over to what's the answer under the structure we have. Both are important, but both are very different, and one does not necessarily negate the other. Just because we're doing it that way doesn't mean it's the right way to do it. It just means it's the right way according to the current structure.
So we're into this issue of independence. I know that a lot of us have in our minds--and you can't avoid it because of the influence--the Congressional Budget Office, which is seen as sort of a beefed-up version of what you do in terms of pre-budget analysis. In fact, I would mention to colleagues--I wish I could remember the country, and maybe someone who has been around longer than I have would know--there's at least one country where their independent budget office actually analyzes election platforms. Think about that for a moment. I wish I could remember. It's in the Commonwealth.
I understand you have the communication things and the Parliamentary Budget Officer doesn't, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't create one that's similar to what you had before that. I'm coming back to the independence again, and I'm having a great deal of difficulty as an independent member being on public accounts, where we deal with accountability. This is our one opportunity to get new information for non-government members. Hopefully an educated Parliament is a better decision-making Parliament. Yet we have an example, and it's not just theoretical, where budgets were cut, yet the mandate still remains independent.
When I or a committee I'm on ask for a piece of analysis, I expect that you or any other agent or officer of Parliament will have the resources to do the job totally, or they're going to come back and say, I can't give you everything I'd like because I don't have the funds. And that's where we are. The question for us is whether we're going to leave in place a structure where someone other than the actual Parliamentary Budget Officer calls the shots, or whether we're going to create more independence. Whether that's ultimately an agent of Parliament remains to be seen, but to me that's the issue. Just analyzing and getting down in detail how the current system works is not the issue.
I keep coming back to this independence. If they don't have independence of action, if they don't have independence of financing, how much actual independence do they have?
You are, of course, proposing a very different model from what is in legislation right now. I think the point we're trying to make is that in order for it to be credible, be it an audit function or a Parliamentary Budget Officer, it must be independent from government, so that the person, for example, is not hired or fired by government, and government doesn't control their staffing or who they hire. For example, we're a separate employer.
But at the end of the day, all of the finances have to be allocated by government. At the end of the day, the Parliamentary Budget Officer.... I can't say that I want to double my budget; it has to fit within the fiscal framework. We have a mechanism, which we established fairly recently, where we have a parliamentary panel overseeing officers of Parliament. But at the end of the day, I have to go through the Treasury Board; I have to deal with analysts like any other department and I have to justify the money. If government comes in and says, all your staff are subject to a 1.5% increase in their pay, I have to live with that.
Yes, you have to have sufficient funds to do the work that you do. Our remedy, I guess, is that we go to the parliamentary committee, the public accounts committee, to say that our funding is insufficient. Parliament can make a recommendation or not; but at the end of the day, it is government that has to decide how it allocates the funds.
If I could use the example of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, who is in our office and reports to me and for whom we have a certain budgetary allocation, I would certainly hope that if the commissioner ever felt he wasn't not getting enough money, we would deal with that internally, rather than having, to be quite frank, a dispute in public or before Parliament. As you know, there's only so much money given to an organization; it's a question of how you allocate it within that.
Some hon. members: Oh, oh!
Ms. Sheila Fraser: No, I think I would report that there is a pretty serious disagreement about how the mandate is to be conducted, that there needs to be clarity around it, that I would suspect there's probably a lack of understanding of accountabilities: who really is the boss? Then I'm sure we would look at things like operational procedures, although I'm not sure that's what would particularly interest the committee at this point.
There are other issues. The legislation is very broad about who can request work. How do you set priorities? How do you deal with those sorts of things? Is the Parliamentary Budgetary Officer required to do all of the work that is requested? If not, how does he or she then decide what to do and when to do it?
Those would be the kinds of issues I think we probably would look at.
They would have to make the case that they would require more funds in the budget allocation within my office. That would be an internal discussion. Hopefully if the commissioner did not receive all the funds they thought they needed, we would be able to arrive at some sort of solution internally rather than having a debate before a parliamentary committee.
If the commissioner could justify a need for more money, we would likely put it through a funding request. In that case, we would go through the Treasury Board Secretariat, as would any other department, with a submission. That submission and the analysis by the Treasury Board Secretariat would be presented to a panel of oversight of parliamentarians of the House of Commons. There would be a discussion there.
That panel is chaired by the Speaker. There is then a recommendation to the President of the Treasury Board. Even then the President of the Treasury Board has the right to say they don't have it, or they can't give them all of it.
Through the discussions with the secretariat officials, we try to arrive at some agreement on the funding level and the additional funds that we may require.