Committee of the Whole on the Estimates, 2020-21

By: The Hon. Peter Harder

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Senator Harder: Good afternoon, and thank you, ministers and officials, for being here. I’m probably one of the few people in Ottawa that believes that Treasury Board’s work is really important and exciting. I want to take the occasion to ask the minister some questions about the role of the Treasury Board, particularly in light of the COVID initiatives and the changing dynamic of both programs and quantum that we are approving.

The Treasury Board, as everyone knows, is the traditional department to ensure program integrity, program evaluation, and the promotion of value and prudence for taxpayer funding.

I would like to hear from the President of the Treasury Board regarding the following: What additional steps, beyond those of the normal practices of the department, have been put in place as a result of the COVID initiatives to ensure that this overwhelming and sudden program allocation meets the traditional standards of integrity and program effectiveness?

Mr. Duclos: Thank you, Senator Harder. Thank you for being so kind and supportive of the role of the Treasury Board and perhaps its president as well. Yes, it is indeed an important central agency, but perhaps an agency whose work is rather discreet, in many cases, in support of other important agencies or departments across the government.

In the current crisis, we have acted in a different number of ways to make sure we could do things quickly but with the integrity and the value for money concerns that you also signalled, and correctly so.

We have needed to be agile and, at the same time, diligent and responsible. As an example of what we did, there was a clear communication to all departments, officials and public servants at all places and all levels of not only an expectation but a demand that whatever measures they put into place — sometimes in a relatively speedy manner — need to be documented and will eventually need to provide full information to the important institutions, like the Information Commissioner, the Auditor General, and other central agents and agencies in the Government of Canada.

Similarly, we have had to be agile and rigorous in our ability to monitor the important demands on health care and the public health side in providing support for medical research, testing, treatment and vaccination, procuring at a level and speed we have never seen in the history of Canada. That involves working with PSPC and other important mechanisms on human resources, technology and financial management sides that the Treasury Board absolutely needs to do.

Senator Harder: I will move on to — if I could put it this way — the “normal” programming activities. What steps are you taking in your department to ensure that the program integrity of the other programs outside of the COVID initiatives continue to be both appropriately resourced and effectively monitored?

Mr. Duclos: The short answer is that I and we have the privilege of having, within the Treasury Board Secretariat, a level of expertise and dedication that is unfortunately not too visible; it is not visible enough for most Canadians and even for parliamentarians. I know this now for sure, because I’ve been at the Treasury Board for a number of months now and I can tell you that, even in the context of an emergency like COVID-19, there have been the right levels of efforts, as you suggested, invested in making sure that other aspects of the government’s work were following the right integrity and monitoring procedures. Again, this amazing level of dedication, expertise and commitment ensures the well-being of our country.

Senator Harder: My final question to you as President of the Treasury Board has to do with transparency. There’s a lot of commentary around transparency. Certainly, as I look at the various websites of both your department and other departments, there is a good deal of information being put out for public and parliamentarian interest, not only for their information but also as a means of holding the government to account.

One of the challenges is that we have many windows of transparency, but we don’t always see the full picture. I’m wondering if the Treasury Board is giving consideration to how to adjust the reporting requirements on the results side to take advantage of the additional tools — particularly electronic tools — that have been developed in the crisis for the transparency that is appropriate to provide a better context for results reporting, by department?

Mr. Duclos: Thank you. I like the phrase that there are different windows to look into the house of the government, but we don’t always see the full picture. That is exactly true. That’s why we and the Minister of Finance were key in doing this. We have provided bi-weekly reports that were tabled in the appropriate parliamentary committees.

We also have two key windows that have been available and filled with important information over the last few weeks. The first one is the Government of Canada InfoBase, which provides important information on the measures and the associated costs of those measures. There is also the Open Government portal, which has led to the automatic and full disclosure of almost 150 separate measures, all focused on the COVID-19 emergency.

In addition to the questions that members in this house and the other house have asked repeatedly and quite legitimately on government operations, there has been a fair amount of transparency. We can always do better, of course, and we should always want to do better, but I think there has been a good level of transparency, given the circumstances.

Senator Harder: Thank you.

My next question is for Minister Morneau.

Yesterday in the Financial Times, there was a front-page story saying that Brookfield Properties is chasing small retailers to pay thousands of dollars in rent on outlets that were forced to close during the coronavirus pandemic, even as the Canadian investment group skips payment on its mortgages and asks its lenders for forbearance. The story goes on to describe, through various documentation that has been received, how they are putting the screws to their tenants while seeking forgiveness from those to whom they owe money.

I know this is not obviously a direct responsibility of the Minister of Finance, but you have in the past spoken to the spirit in which the government’s actions have been undertaken and the assistance that the government has provided. I would invite you to comment on how you see the cooperation from large corporations in the exercise of that spirit in their area of responsibility.

Mr. Morneau: Well, thank you, Senator Harder. Firstly, I didn’t see that article, so I’m not able to comment specifically on what the situation is with Brookfield and their tenants.

With respect to your broader question, we’ve tried to design programs that would create the right incentives for participants in the market to work together, and the path we took on the emergency rent approach was intended to do that. It was intended to provide an incentive for a landlord to work with a tenant because they would be guaranteed 75% of their payment, and it was incentive for the tenant because they would only have to pay 25%. We see that program is now starting to grow, which is positive, enabled by the fact that many of the provinces have temporarily put a moratorium on evictions of commercial tenants.

To your direct question, we’ve actually worked with some of the largest landlords in the country. I’ve personally spoken with a number of them — not to Brookfield but to a number of other large institutions that have a significant number of commercial tenants. I’ve spoken to large Canadian pension funds and in all the cases, in fact, they’ve told me that they would work with the commercial rent approach that we put in place in order to try to get to a settling of the challenge they’re facing: tenants don’t have the money to pay and landlords, of course, don’t want to take a haircut. They thought the program was appropriately scaled for the challenge.

I think that broadly answers the question you’re asking.

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