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Legislation

House Finance Committee could ask all Commons committees to hold pre-budget consultations next year

By Abbas Rana      

Finance Committee held an in-camera meeting last week and will hold at least one more to consider ideas to change the pre-budget consultation process.

House Finance Committee chairman Wayne Easter, right, pictured with Liberal MP Rodger Cuzner, wants his committee to narrow down the focus on pre-budget consultations for next year and 'not try to be all things to all people.' The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright
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PARLIAMENT HILL—The House Finance Committee, which has been holding private post-mortem meetings on its pre-budget consultations for the 2017 federal budget, is considering asking all the Commons committees to help conduct pre-budget consultations next year in an effort to improve the process.

“We already did have one post-mortem meeting on it, actually,” said eight-term Liberal MP Wayne Easter (Malpeque, P.E.I.), chair of the House Finance Committee, in an interview with The Hill Times. “We talked about what was right, what was wrong, and what we need to do going ahead, and, we will have another because we need to ensure that we’re doing the best job we possibly can.”

Mr. Easter said the House Finance Committee met two weeks ago for its first “post-mortem” session and will hold at least one more when the House returns on Jan. 30, 2017, after the six-week break from Ottawa.

The House Finance Committee received 444 briefs and heard from 293 witnesses in the 19 meetings between Sept. 20 and Nov. 30. The committee had a budget of $170,000 to conduct its pre-budget consultations.

Mr. Easter said the House Finance Committee’s pre-budget meetings are “extremely” important because they’re “legislated consultations” under the House Standing Orders, or rules, and provide important feedback to the Finance minister for the annual budget. Each year, the House Finance Committee begins the pre-budget consultations process on June 23 and releases its report in December. The budget is usually released in March, followed by the government’s main spending estimates. Last year, the government spent $296.4-billion.

The financial cycle ends March 26 of every year. House committees report back on the main estimates by May 31.

The Government of Canada’s financial cycle. Source: Parliament of Canada

During the annual pre-budget consultations, the House Finance Committee hears from stakeholders such as industry and trade associations, interest groups, and policy experts about what they would like to include in the coming budget.

In addition to the House Finance Committee pre-budget hearings, the federal Finance minister conducts his or her own consultations before tabling the budget.

This year, the pre-budget consultation process officially started in June and the hearings started in September. The committee members heard from hundreds of interest groups, organizations, and individuals in Ottawa and other major urban centres. It travelled across the country and tabled its report in the House two weeks ago.

Rookie Conservative MP Ron Liepert (Calgary Signal Hill, Alta.) told The Hill Times that he’s not satisfied with the current pre-budget consultation process and wants the committee to make some changes. He said it receives hundreds of submissions and witness requests to appear before the committee each year, but that due to time constraints, can’t consider every request.

Consequently, he said the committee only hears from a quarter of the interested organizations and individuals who in most cases are major players in their respective fields.

“We tend to focus a little bit too much on the large organizations, whether they’re unions or business organizations,” said Mr. Liepert. “We spend too much time listening to them and maybe not enough time listening to smaller organizations that actually have some creative ideas on how to do things.”

Also, he said, considering the wide array of subjects that are covered in the pre-budget consultations, the committee members do not have the expertise to ask proper questions and make decisions on all presentations.

Mr. Liepert said one solution on the table is to get all 27 House committees to conduct pre-budget consultations in their relevant areas of responsibilities and then submit those reports to the House Finance Committee.

Mr. Liepert declined to share any details about the discussions that took place at the private meeting two weeks ago.

“I certainly can’t comment on our discussions that we had in-camera. But, I certainly feel that’s something we should look at because part of the problem is, as a member of the Finance Committee, I’m asked to know everything about every particular subject matter,” said Mr. Liepert.

“How do we get the best ideas from Canadians? It’s almost unfair to expect the Finance Committee to be an expert on every area and actually make decisions that are in the best interests of Canadians on everything,” Mr. Liepert said.

He added that every year, the committee receives hundreds of submissions and requests from organizations and individuals to appear as witnesses. Considering the wide variety of subjects covered in the submissions and witness requests, he said it becomes a tough choice for the committee who to invite to appear before the committee.

NDP MP Guy Caron (Rimouski-Neigette-Témiscouata, Que.), who also sits on the committee and serves his party’s finance critic, said he’s opposed to asking other committees to hold pre-budget consultations because all committees are “masters of their own destiny” and due to their own important ongoing committee work may not accept this request. Mr. Caron has conducted a number of pre-budget consultations over the years as a regular member of the House Finance Committee.

“I’m not too keen on that. I was thinking about it,” said Mr. Caron. “The committees are their own masters. Asking each committee to do it, some might, some might not do it. You can have a very partial result.”

But rookie Liberal MP Robert-Falcon Ouellette (Winnipeg Centre, Man.), a member of the House Finance Committee, predicted that other committees would accept the idea of holding pre-budget consultations and making recommendations to the House Finance Committee. He said this greater engagement would provide an opportunity to all individual committees to influence the annual federal budget.

Mr. Ouellette said that if other committees agree to the idea, their recommendations would provide a foundation to the House Finance Committee to build a better and more comprehensive report.

“I bet any of my colleagues, if they could influence the budget in some way to increase their level of influence, would jump at the chance to use their power to promote some really good ideas that might make really good economic sense in any domain or any field and just improve the Canadian economy, improve the functioning of our bureaucracy,” said Mr. Ouellette.

Liberal MP Robert-Falcon Ouellette supports the idea of asking all committees to undertake pre-budget consultations in their area of responsibility and make recommendations to the Finance Committee. The Hill Times photograph by Sam Garcia

Liberal MP Mike Bossio (Hastings-Lennox and Addington, Ont.), a member of the House Indigenous and Northern Affairs Committee, said he supports the idea, but also said none of the two committees he’s a member of had yet received any request from the House Finance Committee.

“It’s a great thing, sure why not?” said Mr. Bossio. “It’s the committee’s mandate to study any area they want to study. As part of that, it is important that any committee have an opportunity to have influence on the budget in respect of the area of their responsibility.”

But Liberal MP Hedy Fry (Vancouver Centre, B.C.), chair of the House Heritage Committee, said asking all the House committees to do pre-budget consultations would be “quadruplicating” the committees’ work and would not be the best use of committees’  time.

Ms. Fry said MPs currently do pre-budget consultations in their ridings and send reports to the finance minister’s office. As well, the finance minister does his own online and in-person consultations. After all this, if the committees are also asked to do pre-budget consultations, it would mean they would have to drop some of their important work. However, she said if all other committees agreed to help conduct pre-budget consultations, her committee would also participate.

“I just don’t see the usefulness of it,” said Ms. Fry. “If everybody agrees to do it, I guess, we’ll just do it.”

Liberal MP Wayne Easter, chair of the House Finance Committee. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

For his part, Mr. Easter did not offer a clear opinion on the idea of asking all House committees to conduct pre-budget consultations.

But he said the Finance Committee should narrow the focus of its hearings for next year because witnesses can appear before the committee right now to make a presentation about any subject.

“We tend to do pre-budget consultations and try to be all things to all people and if there’s any way that we can lay out maybe some priority areas that we need feedback on, that’d be the bottom line,” said Mr. Easter. “We need to probably narrow the focus in the future, would be my suggestion, may be pick a few topics and keep everybody targeted on those topics rather than trying to be all things to all people kind of thing. It’s a huge, huge task.”

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