Question Period Live

Government budgetary estimates aren't just wild guesses

Estimates form a government's plan for the next year. The Tories can't treat them as mere shots in the dark.

Tabling the government’s main estimates in Parliament sounds like an utterly boring affair, and Tony Clement, the President of the Treasury Board, doesn’t make a show of his annual duty. Tabling the estimates takes a few seconds. But don’t mistake dull and quick for unimportant.

House of Commons Procedure and Practice, a parliamentary guide to how things ought to work in the chamber, explains that the main estimates “provide a breakdown, by department and program, of planned government spending for the upcoming fiscal year.” Budget Day in Ottawa, when the finance minister makes its rhetorical case for a year’s worth of priorities and reporters are locked up in an old train station to scrutinize every word and chart, is all pomp and circumstance. Flashy budget documents also reveal planned government spending—but the finance minister doesn’t immediately ask for the money. That’s the role of the estimates. Parliament must authorize any program spending not automatically funded by statute.

Those estimates, if approved, can be revised, but they’re not pulled from thin air in the first place. Collectively, they form a government’s plan for the next year.

That’s why Megan Leslie, the NDP’s deputy leader and ardent critic of Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq, was shocked to see the Tory plan for environmental assessments. “The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency was cut a whopping 44 per cent, scrapping support for aboriginal consultation on resource projects,” she told the Commons, asking Aglukkaq to own up to the cut.

Indeed, the estimates do indicate funding cuts at the CEAA. The bold text highlights Leslie’s complaint:

“The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency’s 2015–16 Main Estimates of $17.4 million are $13.6 million less than the 2014–15 Main Estimates. The difference is mainly attributable to the sunsetting of funds to improve Canadaʼs regulatory framework for major resource projects and Aboriginal consultation. These sunsetting programs are subject to government decisions as part of the budget process. Outcomes of such decisions will be reflected in the Agencyʼs future budget exercises and Estimates documents.”

The same language appears in the CEAA’s most recent report on plans and priorities, which otherwise explains that aboriginal consultation is “integrated to the greatest extent possible with the federal environmental assessment process.” Aglukkaq, who claimed that the government has actually bolstered aboriginal consultation, would only dismiss the value of carefully crafted estimates. “It is well known that the main estimates are exactly that,” she said. “They’re estimates, and they don’t represent the entire budget for the department.”

Clement was even more blunt in response to NDP MP Nathan Cullen’s opposition to the government plan. “It feels like Groundhog Day, Mr. Speaker,” he said, hoping a Bill Murray reference might lighten the mood. “Every year we table the estimates. Every year, we get the righteous indignation of the opposition party.”

In other words, an opposition party doing its job.

As for today’s scorecard: members’ statements were an absolute horror show, but the rest of the day’s questions and answers avoided blatant violations of truth, shameless fear-mongering of hypothetical policy, and lingering hatred for that old Liberal government defeated nearly a decade past. Aglukkaq’s response demonstrates yet another problem with an objective scoring of question period: she didn’t lie, but her response didn’t address the substance of Leslie’s question. Time wasted.

The context

What started as an attempt to score question period’s productivity has morphed into an intellectual nightmare that’s invaded my dreams and frightened people around me. I mumble about what’s fair and unfair, who’s advancing democracy’s cause and who’s laughing in its face, and whether or not this daily routine, silly or serious in different moments, is even measurable. Productivity is about more than avoiding personal attacks, discouraging fear mongering and lying, and agreeing on a universal definition of relevance. A useful question period has to produce something; it has to produce a simple, meaningful exchange.

And so this exercise has come full circle. My goal with QP Live and the must-see moment that follows has always been to find two parliamentarians who stand up and make an effort to reasonably solve a disagreement, or find common ground, or at least give it all an honest shot. Perhaps this challenge is that simple: if the people we elect emerge with a 99 per cent failure rate after 45 minutes of squabbling, fine. Just give us a single moment of which voters can be proud.

Note: I haven’t given up on a scoring system. Here’s one last effort to, if not score question period’s productivity, at least measure its ebbs and flows. Some poor questions and non-answers will go unpunished, but this sorts out the overtly negative, and the obviously distracting, from the simply mundane.

+1 point: kind words about another party
+1 point: opposition to government policy on its merits
+1 point: defence of government policy on its merits

-1 point: reading a lie into Hansard
-1 point: opposing a hypothetical policy
-1 point: opposing a defeated government

We’ll tally it up, once again, after the show.