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Second Reading - Bill C-27, Appropriation Bill No. 1, 2021-22

Honourable senators, Bill C-27 is the first supply bill for the new fiscal year, 2021-22. It’s referred to as the interim supply bill and it effectively provides an advance of funding laid out in the Main Estimates to allow the government to operate until the main supply bill is passed, which usually occurs in June.

I’m going to start by speaking about the supply bills from last year because the supply cycle, as we know it, flows from year to year, so it is important to look at the supply bills from the previous year. Initiatives from the previous years continue into the next year, so each year cannot be looked at in isolation. Last year was a different year because of the pandemic, so some pandemic — or COVID-19 — initiatives from last year will continue into the new year, and that is where I will begin my comments.

Last year was a challenging year for parliamentarians and others who were trying to track the government’s COVID-19 spending initiatives. The government started off with the disclosure of a biweekly COVID-19 report and provided this report to parliamentarians until early August. When Parliament was prorogued in early August, the government ceased providing the report and never resumed its disclosure. As a result, it became almost impossible to track COVID-19 spending. I raised this issue a number of times last year — on three occasions with Senator Gold in this chamber, with Finance Minister Freeland and with Treasury Board President Duclos.

The Parliamentary Budget Officer also indicated in a number of his recent reports that the information on COVID-19 spending is lacking. He said there’s no public document published by the government that provides a complete list of all COVID-19 measures announced to date or updated cost estimates. As a result, we can’t track this spending.

The Parliamentary Budget Officer also makes another interesting observation. He says that while not all COVID-19 spending is made public by the government, federal departments and agencies are required to report this information and update the government’s central financial management and reporting system with actual spending data on a monthly basis. In other words, the data is available. The government just won’t provide it to parliamentarians. The Standing Senate Committee on National Finance has also recommended in recent reports that the government resume disclosure of this COVID-19 spending information.

On March 10, the House of Commons’ Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates passed a motion regarding COVID-19 spending data. Apparently, they’re looking for the same data I’m looking for. Specifically, the motion read as follows:

. . . the committee send for, from the Treasury Board Secretariat, all monthly COVID-19 expenditures reports and COVID-19 spending data as disclosed by the chief financial officers of all respective departments and that these documents be provided to the committee no later than Wednesday, March 17, 2021, and then update this committee on a monthly basis by the 15th of the month.

So there are parliamentarians on the other side also looking for financial information on the government’s COVID-19 spending. I await with interest the response of the government on this matter.

To conclude, the government is refusing to disclose information on its COVID-19 spending to parliamentarians, thus making it difficult for us to provide the required oversight. While the government representatives do indicate that the government is transparent and accountable, I can assure my honourable colleagues that’s not the case. I work with these data on a daily basis, and while data are available at a very high level, detail is not sufficient in order to provide the oversight.

When you factor in other issues, such as the lack of a budget for two years; a proposed increase in the government’s borrowing authority, which is included in Bill C-14, currently in the House of Commons; and the refusal to provide basic financial information requested by parliamentarians, we should be concerned.

Honourable senators, interim estimate supply bills are generally not studied by the Standing Senate Committee on National Finance. Rather, interim supply bills are passed by the Senate, and issues relating to Interim Estimates are raised during our study of Main Estimates on the main supply bill. However, a review of Bill C-27 and its schedules, along with the cursory review of Main Estimates, does provide some information and raises some interesting questions.

First, neither the Main Estimates nor these Interim Estimates for next year identify COVID-19 initiatives. Once the pandemic was declared, the government identified its COVID-19 spending initiatives in all its estimates documents, including Supplementary Estimates (A) last year, Supplementary Estimates (B) and Supplementary Estimates (C).

However, the government is no longer providing this information. Honourable senators may recall that I asked Senator Gold two weeks ago why government is no longer providing this information. Without this information, it will be much more difficult for parliamentarians to track COVID-19 spending.

Last year, the Senate approved Interim Estimates of $44 billion. This year, approval is being requested for $59 billion, an increase of $15 billion. As I indicated previously, the Interim Estimates provide funding for the government to operate until main supply is approved, usually in June. Therefore, I would expect Interim Estimates to request funding for about a third of the year. Last year, the government requested 35% of its Main Estimates funding, while this year it is requesting 41% of its Main Estimates funding.

While I appreciate that all or most of the funding for some initiatives, such as grants, may be requested in Interim Estimates, explanations for other amounts cannot be determined until we review the Main Estimates. For example, the Public Health Agency of Canada is requesting eleven-twelfths of some of its funding. This may be related to COVID-19 initiatives, but since the government no longer identifies COVID-19 initiatives, it is not possible to reach any conclusion.

Compare this to the funding requested in the Interim Estimates for the Leaders’ Debate Commission. Government is requesting eleven-twelfths of the Main Estimates funding in this bill. Since we are expecting an election this year, providing most of the funding upfront is plausible.

I would be remiss if I concluded my comments with no references to the financing of the government’s spending plans, including the Interim Estimates as outlined in Bill C-27.

Bill C-14, which is now before the other place, proposes to raise the government’s debt ceiling to $1.8 trillion from $1.1 trillion, which was established by Parliament in 2017. Given the concerns expressed by many individuals and organizations over the significant proposed increase in the government’s debt ceiling, I expect Bill C-14 will be referred to the Standing Senate Committee on National Finance for study, and I will reserve any other comments on the proposed borrowing until we study that bill.

Honourable senators, in closing, I thank my colleagues on the National Finance Committee for their excellent work. I also thank the clerk of our committee, Maxime Fortin, and her team for their support over the past year.

Honourable senators, this concludes my comments on Bill C-27.

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