Appropriation Bill No. 3, 2020–21—Third Reading

By: The Hon. Peter Harder

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Could wearing a Canadian flag, Toronto

Hon. Peter Harder: Honourable senators, I’m surprised to be called so quickly and I’m delighted to be here to say a few things about Bill C-19. Rising to speak on a supply bill is a courageous act for anybody, but it is a subject on which I’ve had some experience over a number of years. As I stood, I was reflecting on the story of Elizabeth Taylor’s seventh husband who, on the night of the marriage, said, “I know what is expected of me. I just don’t know how to make it interesting.” So, colleagues, I know what is expected of me, but I will try to make it interesting.

Supply is normally, and rightly so, the role of the House of Commons to establish. Those of us who remember Anne Cools, in her parting weeks will know she offered her personal experience and she started with the Magna Carta, and she was a little younger at that point, in 1215, but she reminded how the bargain at Magna Carta is really the basis of our supply, and that’s true.

When I first came to Ottawa, supply was even more obtuse than it is now. The documentation for supply was literally just binders and binders of numbers by vote, and the supply process was highly complex in the House of Commons, particularly, and that led to a reform in the Mulroney government, chaired by Jim McGrath, later Lieutenant Governor McGrath, and it was an attempt to provide parliamentarians with a more understandable time frame for supply, so it dealt with the process but not really the content.

When I got to the Treasury Board 25 years ago, and went through my first supply process, I said to my staff, “This reminds me of Brezhnev’s Moscow.” “What do you mean by that?” “Well, workers pretended to work and managers pretended to pay them.” So we pretend to give information to Parliament and they pretend to hold us to account.

The level and complexity of the documentation was beguiling and incomprehensible, and there began a process called The Improved Reporting to Parliament Project, which started with listening to parliamentarians, including Anne Cools, and that’s when I first met her. It was based on the belief that if we had better information presented to parliamentarians on departmental plans we would have a better and a more engaged process on supply.

Now, I suspect we were more hopeful, as it turns out, than perhaps realistic, but the thought was that we could learn from some of the reforms being undertaken in various jurisdictions, in terms of how to improve the engagement with Parliament, or legislatures, on information that was relevant to an understanding of what departments were trying to achieve — not just the input of dollars but the outcome of resources being applied.

It would hurt my former seatmate’s feelings; Grant Mitchell, as you know, spent a good deal of time trying to become premier of Alberta. Strange as it sounds, one of the surprising areas of innovation on supply was Ralph Klein’s Alberta, where they began some of the early experiments on how to package information on outcomes that could engage parliamentarians more helpfully. As Tony Dean was in a very senior role in Ontario, that same process began under, surprisingly, Mike Harris.

The feds played catch-up, but we actually accomplished a fair degree in terms of advancing the notion that it wasn’t inputs and numbers — although they are important — but trying to articulate, what are we trying to achieve, what are the outcomes and how do we become accountable for those outcomes? We have accountants to tell us about the numbers. Parliamentarians, I would argue, ought to be those who judge whether or not the outcomes or results are achievable.

One of the innovations brought at that time was the recognition that the departmental results were fine with respect to the departments, but that so much of government is cross-departmental, and how do you aggregate the results that are government-wide?

There was a process called “reporting to Canadians on results,” which aggregated some of the departmental work and committed governments — and they were somewhat cautious in adopting this, I should add — to certain achievements government-wide, nationwide, for a period of time. But we began discussions with provinces: Could we actually have a document where we had cross-jurisdictional alignment of results?

That work was under way. The notion was that we needed to adapt what was called modern comptrollership within the public service, to go from just the verifying of the numbers to actually having our audit function, our control function within government, focusing on results and outcomes. The then-Auditor General was actually involved in this. Some of that work lives on today; you see the Departmental Results Reports and the Departmental Plans.

However, there were challenges along the way. One is the development of parliamentary agencies, which I commented on when we interviewed the then-Auditor General designate — the notion of value for money being assessed by the Auditor General, which is not the way I would do it. I would have the Auditor General auditing, as auditors do, the verification of the integrity of the numbers; and Parliament should do the auditing with respect to whether value for money has been achieved.

That’s a rather subjective notion. Senator Patterson isn’t here, but I might have a different view than he does on the value for money of the CERB, for example.

Parliamentary Budget Officers were included. We’ve recently added the parliamentary budget office to this. I would encourage you to read the works of Donald Savoie, who has been a lone critic of the development of parliamentary agencies. Governments hate them when they’re in government and love them when they’re in opposition, and for very good reason. They’re the brains of the opposition — of course, excluding the opposition in the Senate — and are often the bane of existence of governments.

A few things came along to disrupt this, I would say, modernization of comptrollership. One was the HRDC scandal. The moral equivalent of the HRDC scandal, to help senators understand this, is the helpful way in which the Auditor General undertook the study of the Senate. It froze the system of innovation in the public service. What surprises me is that senators are affronted by the AG, and they want the AG to do the same thing in other departments. But I leave that for another day.

The financial crisis, of course, totally disrupted the work underway. There was a government change, and that government came in with what they called the Federal Accountability Act, which was about restoring rules and regulations and removing innovation — what I call developing a team of goalies.

Lo and behold, the Auditor General becomes the newsmaker of the year for the HRDC scandal. The Auditor General should have become perhaps the person of the year for the Senate.

So we develop the comptrollership, the whole concept of more rules will lead to this never happening again. How many governments have you heard, in the light of an issue in which there has been a clear abuse of funds, say, “We called in the Auditor General. We’ve had a review. We’re imposing new rules. This will never happen again” — until it happens again?

I would argue that we need to return to focusing more clearly on results and outcomes, and have an intelligent discussion on accountability that is certainly more appropriate to a chamber that views itself as sober second thought.

I ask the question: What does parliamentary oversight and accountability look like in the context of COVID-19? At least for consideration, I would give you five points that we should think about in terms of the implication of what I am saying for the supply cycle, the estimates and the work of the Senate.

The first point I would like to make is this: Get used to scenarios and not one plan. During questioning, Senator Massicotte has referenced a couple of times the excellent document from Bennett Jones, a law firm with which I was not associated, led by David Dodge and a couple of deputy ministers, including former deputy ministers of finance. The document provides two scenarios — because who knows how this will unfold — in terms of their analysis of Canada’s fiscal and economic well-being. A week after Dodge issued his report, the OECD — which is a highly reputable organization — in its report on Canada, came up with two scenarios, not dissimilar to Bennett Jones, because they couldn’t come up with one.

My admonition to parliamentarians is this: Don’t demand one plan; demand a more intelligent discussion on scenarios. If I can predict one thing for Minister Morneau’s statement next month, it’s that he should keep away from predicting one plan going forward. And if I could make one other prediction: Whatever he says, Senator Plett will denounce.

Some Hon. Senators: Oh, oh!

Senator Harder: The second point I’d make is that we need to reward innovation, adaptation and quick adjustments to fill gaps. The innovation that has been used — even in the coming forth of the legislation we are dealing with today and that we have dealt with in emergency legislation earlier on — is quite formidable in terms of how it was handled differently than usual. Draft bills were shared confidentially with leaders in the other place. Amendments or concerns generated by those drafts were incorporated before governments tabled a bill.

One could argue that’s logical in a minority Parliament, but it is an innovation that we should reflect on because, obviously, if there has been that degree of consultation before, there will be less debate on the floor. That’s just the nature of deal-making. I regret, for example, when that fell apart in the other place, the disability benefits, which are so necessary for disadvantaged Canadians, fell by the wayside as well. So be careful what you wish for when you want old processes; they may not be appropriate in the circumstances in which we are. We should expect and reward agility and adjustments to deal with gaps.

Three, our toolkit of both policy and systems was inadequate in the face of COVID, and the government had to act quickly on the policy innovation but also on the system innovation.

The Hon. the Speaker: Senator Harder, are you asking for five more minutes?

Senator Harder: Five more minutes, please.

The Hon. the Speaker: Is it agreed, honourable senators?

Hon. Senators: Agreed.

Senator Harder: New York City Mayor Mario Cuomo said, “Good public administration is a combination of poetry and plumbing.” Supply is a lot about plumbing. I think we need to spend some time appreciating the innovation around the systems in government as a result of this. Who would have thought ESDC could almost seamlessly deliver the degree of system changes required to deliver the policy innovation that was brought?

I want to say a few words on the balance of public accountability and transparency because I think the trade-off between policy innovation has been a greater degree of transparency. Again, I would dispute some of the comments made; daily calls, the Finance biweekly report, take a look at it. It is the most interesting document coming out of the Government of Canada in years, and it’s from the Department of Finance. I would argue that we are seeing more information and more real-time information than heretofore, and we should keep demanding it.

My fourth point is to learn and adapt our supply process. I would suggest that with the work being done by National Finance, it was easier for us to deal with the supply bill because we had weeks of review of the COVID measures, and there was overlap. It should continue at least until we are in a more normal process.

My fifth and last point, I didn’t think I was going to add, but I will. Belligerent and disrespectful questioning of witnesses, be they ministers or officials, is no substitute for substantial engagement. Thank you.

Hon. Elizabeth Marshall: Does Senator Harder have time for a question?

The Hon. the Speaker: He has two minutes.

Senator Marshall: As you know, I had to laugh when you talked about the big binders from years ago. Well, guess what? We still have them.

One of the issues that I see is the quantity of information. In order for parliamentarians to keep on top of what’s happening, it’s an all-consuming job. I can’t say it’s a 24-hour job, but it’s a very demanding job. You have all this information out there, and parliamentarians really do need to access both the numbers and things like the departmental results reports. In addition to bringing this all together, there are still holes that need to be plugged.

Do you have any foresight, commentary or suggestions? I would like to hear your views on that. I was cleaning out my office last night, and I picked up an old report of the Auditor General. Leave it to me to open it up to see what was in it. It was one of Mike Ferguson’s reports, and he was talking about all this information that’s not put together; it’s all over the place. And it’s an issue.

I would really appreciate your comments on that because you might be able to shorten the time I spend working.

Senator Harder: I was trying to get at that in my questioning of Minister Duclos the other day, when I talk about lots of transparency, but it’s windows of transparency, and how do you get a panoramic view? It seems to me that one of the things we need to consider is what would a dashboard of what we really need to know look like? Could we engage with Treasury Board, from a parliamentarian point of view, on a dashboard giving up-to-date and regular information on these sets of issues, which would help on parliamentary oversight and accountability? That might be a different set of issues than Treasury Board is using with its departments, but that would at least be a start.

I’m with you; I think that real information gets lost simply in its overwhelming presence.

Senator Marshall: You were saying the biweekly report is interesting, but there are still holes in it. So where do you go to find the information to plug the holes? Do I have time to ask one more question?

The Hon. the Speaker: Sorry, Senator Marshall —

Senator Marshall: I would like your views on the departmental reports.

The Hon. the Speaker: Senator Marshall, the time has expired.

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