Appropriation Bill No. 3, 2020–21
Excerpt from Debates of the Senate (Hansard)
Appropriation Bill No. 3, 2020–21
Third Reading—Debate Continued
On the Order:
Resuming debate on the motion of the Honourable Senator Gold, P.C., seconded by the Honourable Senator Gagné, for the third reading of Bill C-19, An Act for granting to Her Majesty certain sums of money for the federal public administration for the fiscal year ending March 31, 2021.
Hon. Marty Deacon: Honourable senators, I rise today to speak on Bill C-19, or more broadly, the business of supply. While I would love to read for you line for line the third report of the Standing Senate Committee on National Finance, which was tabled here on Tuesday, I’m not sure that would be appreciated. Instead, I would like to highlight some of the items that caught the eye of my ISG colleagues from the Finance Committee who cannot be in the chamber today. I’m also super tempted to spend all my time elaborating on Senator Harder’s five big suggestions, but I will try to stay on track.
The first specific issue is the delay in the procurement of the two joint support ships for the Royal Canadian Navy. As the report illustrates, we had a great deal of concern around this process given the costs, overruns and delays. We believe the Deputy Minister of the Department of National Defence should be invited to our Finance Committee to explain the management of the Strong, Secure, Engaged defence plan. Reliable procurement is critical to the long-term planning of our Canadian Forces. Further delays only cloud these efforts.
Another concern is the disclosure practices of the Canada Account, which is used for transactions that the government deems to be in the national interest. Suffice to say, there is room for improvement. Information is not made public about whether businesses that received a loan delivered on a job as promised, whether the loan requires top-ups, was repaid as scheduled or even if it was ever repaid at all. The Canada Account uses public funds and therefore risks government resources and taxpayer contributions.
Bill C-13 enabled the Minister of Finance to increase the liability amount for the Canada Account, and he did so to the tune of $93 billion. Parliamentarians and Canadians they represent have the right always to know how this money is being spent and if it’s being spent wisely.
Furthermore, Export Development Canada’s payments have been excluded from the supplementary estimates as well on the basis that their programs do not receive payments from the Consolidated Revenue Fund. These are huge sums we’re unable to look at and examine. It’s critical that we see more detailed reporting from the EDC about Canada Account transactions, as well as the inclusion of funding provided to EDC in the supplementary estimates.
Our National Finance Committee chair, Senator Mockler, reminds us every meeting at least once that on behalf of Canadians, we must ensure transparency, accountability, predictability and reliability.
It is on this that I wish to focus my own remarks. No question, no new news; it has been an unusual year to put it mildly. On March 13, we passed the first appropriation act with no debate or study by the chamber. We all understood the rush, and even with the benefit of hindsight, we did not question that decision. We were staring down a pandemic, and we did not know when we could or would return. The government had to be able to spend, and that’s what we facilitated. It’s truly remarkable to reflect on the speed and possibility of being agile when we required almost daily changes to support Canadians. We must not forget this.
Fast-forward to now and we are still not able to give the spending the kind of scrutiny it deserves. In addition to the Committee of the Whole on Tuesday, our Finance Committee held one meeting on the supplementary estimates. We are, of course, studying the spending around COVID-19 measures. I want to thank Senators Mockler, Forest and Richards for their leadership in navigating this complex task, as well as the very capable and intelligent staff who support us on the committee.
We have listened to and challenged dozens of experts and witnesses on short order. But while this report will no doubt pull back the curtain for Canadians on government spending on this crisis, it will do so after these two appropriation acts are dealt with here today.
We are in extraordinary times. I understand that we can’t give this spending the kind of examination we would have preferred. However, I must admit that for some time I felt the Senate’s role in the business of supply was a little bit foggy, a little bit unclear.
I suspect this is a symptom of section 53 of the Constitution Act, 1867, which somewhat ties senators’ hands in financial matters. Further to that, there is nothing in our rules that states we have to study the supply bills. We do not refer them to committee, although Finance does, of course, study the estimates which, year in, year out, is a bit of a Herculean task.
Through these studies, I quickly came to realize, as no doubt many of you have, that we are here to shine more light on government spending. The role is even more important when a party has the majority of seats in the other place or, in this case, when spending is being pushed through quickly as we react to a national and global emergency.
Not many Canadians have the time to line up horizontal items in the estimates with the appropriation acts that routinely reappear before us. It is not light reading. But as taxpayers, they have the right to understand how and where the money is being spent. And that’s where we all come in.
So, colleagues, I’m going to put on my educator hat and try to give us extra-credit assignments over the summer. You may find yourself a bit uncomfortable with this process, as I know I did when I arrived here, but it’s worth getting to know it.
This is not to call into question the ability of any of my honourable colleagues, ability, which we saw in spades during Tuesday’s Committee of the Whole. I just know that, when I sat down at my first National Finance Committee meeting, it was neither English nor French I was hearing.
Moreover, and most importantly, if Senator Marshall says she’s having trouble tracking the money this time round, I can say with certainty the rest of us are struggling as well.
I am still learning, but what I have learned thus far has made me a better senator. One thing I have learned is that the more eyes we have on the money trail, the better off Canadians will be. This will be all the more important in the years to come. The government has turned on the fiscal firehose to stave off economic disaster and has racked up a significant debt. There’s a range of opinions in this chamber over the wisdom and effectiveness of this spending, but we can all agree that where and how the money is spent will be priority number one in the years to come.
If we return in the fall with upwards of 105 sets of eyes poring over every detail of estimate documents, the country will be better off. I’m not just referring to the big-ticket items, but the seemingly monotonous and benign items as well. It will raise the level of debate over these matters. It will make ministers uncomfortable when they know they need to be ready to justify and account for every dollar they are being asked to spend. And it will let the government know that their spending habits will be laid bare once they hit the Senate floor.
Thank you, colleagues, for indulging me on this. I wish you all good health and happiness until we meet here again.