February 8, 1955

PC

Edmund Davie Fulton

Progressive Conservative

Mr. Fulton:

You made it too conditional.

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LIB

Walter Edward Harris (Minister of Finance and Receiver General; Leader of the Government in the House of Commons; Liberal Party House Leader)

Liberal

Mr. Harris:

Yes, 1 suppose we have to have conditions in the House of Commons; we have to lay down rules to carry out the business of the house. I am particularly glad that I did lay down some rules with respect to this committee in my opening remarks, because it is quite evident that if I had not the opposition would not be able to agree on a single thing the committee ought to do when it meets.

Just to be very brief about it, the hon. member for Acadia (Mr. Quelch) indicated that his group would support this measure

and asked one specific question which I should answer. He requested that there might be a change in the personnel of the committee from time to time because the opposition, and presumably the government side, would be desirous of taking care of those who had an interest in one department and not in another. I do not believe the government has ever refused to change the name of anyone on a committee if a party desired to have a change made, and that will continue to be the case. I would hope that in this way we would have the best possible experience brought to bear on the estimates from time to time in the estimates committee.

The hon. member for Quebec South (Mr. Power) said he approved of the proposal, and wanted it made clear that there would be an opportunity in the committee to hear from officials of the departments for the purpose of eliciting information. He rather indicated that he thought the only way to do that would be to have the officials there, and not have an examination of the minister intervening. Now, I have not the blue sheets of what I said, but at that point I read very carefully the notes I have in front of me and I am going to reread the point I made, and which he must have overlooked in his remarks. I said this:

Each minister would be responsible for the conduct of the affairs of his department before the committee, and if he chooses to make all the answers himself, that would be consistent in our view with the purposes of the committee. If, on the other hand, he thinks it desirable to leave the explanation of the details of administration to others, that will also be his responsibility, but if this course is followed it will not be possible for an official or other person to be questioned as to the policy of the government. This must be the responsibility of the government and the minister concerned, and he cannot devolve that responsibility upon an official.

I take that to mean, Mr. Speaker, that in all probability ministers will prefer to have officials, from time to time, speak directly to the committee. But I repeat that is a matter of choice for the minister as to how he conducts his affairs before that committee. I cannot conceive of that committee having any greater authority than the committee of supply. I tried to make that point throughout everything I said.

The hon. member for Eglinton raised a number of questions, and in particular he seems to have taken objection to the thought that there would not be a debate on policy on the motion to send these estimates to the estimates committee. He pointed out that there had been debates on policy with respect to external affairs when we sent the estimates of that department to the standing committee on external affairs. It is quite true that in recent years we have followed

that course, particularly because there has been some anxiety in the house about external affairs matters during the last four or five years.

I should like to point out that it is only a practice which has grown up. We did not always follow it. In the first three years, 1946, 1947 and 1948, there was no debate on the motion to refer the estimates to the standing committee, and in 1952 there was no debate. Of the six or seven times we have followed this practice, there has been just about an even division as between debate or no debate.

The government has always acceded to the request of the opposition for a debate on external affairs. On occasion we have resorted to the device of moving the adjournment of the house to permit that debate. In my view that system, that practice, can be followed on any future occasion when there is an obvious need for debate on external affairs. But the point I wished to make-and I am sure the point was made clearly, though I understand I did not make myself clear to the hon. member for Winnipeg South Centre (Mr. Churchill)-was this, that if there is any advantage whatever in a discussion of these estimates in a room other than this one, surely the opposition would not expect the government to follow their wishes in that respect and, in so doing, take more time in this room in a debate on policy.

Now, I said that a motion to refer these estimates to the estimates committee should not be debatable. That was all I said. I did not say-and I am sure no one else understood me to say-that that would preclude debate in the committee of supply itself. I think it is perfectly obvious from the remarks of the hon. member for Kamloops (Mr. Fulton) why I went no further than that.

There has been a great deal of discussion as to when you can have a policy debate to the best advantage. One argument which has been advanced on innumerable occasions by the Leader of the Opposition was that if we only had an intimate, detailed discussion of the estimates first, we could have a better debate on policy afterward. So, as I conceive the practice here, we intend to send these estimates to the estimates committee. Hon. members will there be able to ask all the questions which they say they have not a chance to ask in committee of supply, or that they do not feel like asking because they appear to be trivial and they do not want to hold up the house. They can ask all these questions and get the information they want, then when the item comes back to committee of supply we will have, as we always intended

Special Committee on Estimates to have, a debate on item 1, such as we have always had; and that debate may very well be longer and more specific and better informed because of the preliminary discussions in the estimates committee.

That I thought was one of the most telling arguments in favour of this practice. Now we find that the opposition is hopelessly divided as to whether that ought to be done. The hon. member for Prince Albert for example wants to have the policy debate before these items go to the estimates committee. Well, if he has the debate before, I am sure he need not have one after. At any rate it is not the intention of the government to extend the time for consideration of the estimates.

The hon. member for Greenwood was less than enthusiastic about what we were proposing to do, as I understand him. In fact, if I were to judge his position-

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PC

James MacKerras Macdonnell

Progressive Conservative

Mr. Macdonnell:

Hopeful.

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LIB

Walter Edward Harris (Minister of Finance and Receiver General; Leader of the Government in the House of Commons; Liberal Party House Leader)

Liberal

Mr. Harris:

-it would be that he had some genuine doubts as to the usefulness of the estimates committee or, alternatively, that he was afraid that ultimately this would lead to a diminution of the responsibilities of the committee of supply. If he did not think those things, there was no point in quoting Walter Elliot, who expressed great concern about the difference in the consideration of the estimates in the House of Commons at Westminster at the time he was speaking, and what it had been on former occasions. I would suppose that the hon. member for Greenwood does not share the view that this committee can add very much to the usefulness of the committee of supply. We all hope it will; we think it will. But I want to assure him, and I want to assure all hon. members- because I was surprised by the suspicions which appeared to be in their minds about our motives-that this motion is as a direct consequence of our repeated discussions on this subject of aiding in the consideration of the estimates, and in the work of the committee of supply.

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PC

James MacKerras Macdonnell

Progressive Conservative

Mr. Macdonnell:

Would the minister permit a question? Does he think it unnatural and unreasonable that on this side we should have thought, as I did, that the general pattern would be that which was followed with regard to external affairs? That was what I understood, and I would like to ask the minister if he thinks that was an unnatural and unreasonable understanding.

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LIB

Walter Edward Harris (Minister of Finance and Receiver General; Leader of the Government in the House of Commons; Liberal Party House Leader)

Liberal

Mr. Harris:

The estimates of the Department of External Affairs have been referred to the standing committee since the immediate post-war years. At that time it was the intention and the hope-and I think in the

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Special Committee on Estimates main the hope has been realized-that external affairs would remain an all-party consideration. That was the reason in the first instance it was possible to adopt the practice of sending those items on external affairs to the standing committee for further consideration. It was felt that external affairs, as a policy, was something that all parties ought to be involved in to the greatest possible extent, and that that in itself would lead to the committee extending its influence over matters of external affairs. But it was not considered at that time that a reference of the items to the standing committee would have any particular influence over the actions of the committee of supply. It was not requested that we should do what has been done for the purpose of simplifying debate in the House of Commons, in committee of supply, on external affairs estimates. It was for the purpose of a more general understanding of the policies of external affairs.

Now, over the course of two or three sessions, or perhaps three or four, one would suppose that he would get around to all the departments in the estimates committee. That is the intention, and I agree that hon. members opposite might find it convenient to consider a particular department next year or the year after which they would not want to have this year. I have no reason to suppose we shall not consult them about their convenience in this as we have in other matters.

However, as the hon. member for Kamloops indicated, we felt we were under an obligation to lay down a practice for this year by selecting the particular departments that have been mentioned. And just one word about that. We find the extraordinary situation of the hon. member for Prince Albert wanting to discuss the Department of Citizenship and Immigration, and wanting to discuss it before it goes to the estimates committee and when it comes back, and the hon. member for Kamloops saying that is the one department that should not go to that committee.

It would not be confessing anything that is not known to the house if I pointed out that I was responsible for the policy of the Department of Citizenship and Immigration until recently. I am not unaware of the fact that the opposition, through the leader of that party, has demanded a royal commission with respect to immigration. And this government has no intention of granting that request. On the other hand it did seem to us that by offering this department to the estimates committee for the kind of consideration they say they have not been able to give it in committee of supply, we were doing everything short of that in accommodating them.

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PC

Gordon Minto Churchill

Progressive Conservative

Mr. Churchill:

It was just because of the lack of time in committee of supply. It was brought up on the last day.

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LIB

Walter Edward Harris (Minister of Finance and Receiver General; Leader of the Government in the House of Commons; Liberal Party House Leader)

Liberal

Mr. Harris:

I am prepared to speak about that, too, if my hon. friend wishes. It was not the last day; it was the last two days my hon. friends debated citizenship and immigration last summer.

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PC

Edmund Davie Fulton

Progressive Conservative

Mr. Fullon:

No, no.

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LIB

Walter Edward Harris (Minister of Finance and Receiver General; Leader of the Government in the House of Commons; Liberal Party House Leader)

Liberal

Mr. Harris:

Yes, yes.

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PC

Edmund Davie Fulton

Progressive Conservative

Mr. Fulton:

The Governor General's car was practically outside the door when you brought on your estimates.

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LIB

Walter Edward Harris (Minister of Finance and Receiver General; Leader of the Government in the House of Commons; Liberal Party House Leader)

Liberal

Mr. Harris:

We began our estimates Friday afternoon and completed them Saturday night, or perhaps it was Thursday afternoon and Friday night; I have forgotten which. And, Mr. Speaker, while I do not mean to go far afield in the matter of citizenship and immigration, I should point out that we have just gone through a long debate on the address, and I do not think there has been any reference of any significance to that department in any of the speeches made by my hon. friends opposite. However, it is the desire

it is my desire, and one can understand why it should be-that that department should go before the estimates committee for consideration, so we shall not have any further reference to my having left that department to the last two days of the last session for consideration.

I always like to listen to the hon. member for Prince Albert, and long ago I made up my mind I would not intervene when he was out of order because eventually he does come back to the point. He did speak at some length about the Auditor General and his comments in the public accounts report about some of our past activities. He made a great point of the fact that the C.B.C. had, as he said, defied the Auditor General in connection with a certain bookkeeping method. Well, Mr. Speaker, I do not know what defiance is in his parlance, but the fact of the matter is that the Auditor General did make comments. It is true that those comments were not acted upon immediately, but I for one would expect that I should have time to consider a report of the Auditor General and devise something within the complaint he makes and within the administrative problems that I have to face. As the hon. member finally admitted, the wrong that he claims was done has now been rectified, and we need not be concerned about that in the future.

He also pointed out, and I think in a manner that would leave the impression that something wrong was being done, that the

Auditor General had made certain other observations about practices in the C.B.C. and other crown companies. The very recitation of those things is an indication that no information has been withheld from the opposition. I have been astonished to find almost every speaker in the opposition suggesting that the purpose of the estimates committee which we are recommending to the house is a somewhat devious one on my part to bring about an easier passing of the estimates for which I am responsible.

I cannot imagine any sensible person believing them when they say that. I should have thought that if they complained that the present practice has worked to their disadvantage, the government, if it wanted it that way, would continue the present practice. On the other hand, as I said in my opening statement no government should ask parliament to pass almost $5 billion without the most careful scrutiny, consideration and intelligent criticism which can be given to it. In my capacity as Minister of Finance I think everyone will appreciate that if they could find a way of reducing the estimates,

I would be particularly happy.

On that point, I notice the hon. member for Quebec South is not with us at the moment.

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?

Some hon. Members:

Yes, he is.

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LIB

Walter Edward Harris (Minister of Finance and Receiver General; Leader of the Government in the House of Commons; Liberal Party House Leader)

Liberal

Mr. Harris:

I beg your pardon. He was modest enough not to make any reference to his past, and of course I should not either; but I would like to point out that hon. members have not followed his practice very much in recent years, perhaps for reasons of their own. Some years ago the hon. member for Quebec South had occasion to move in the house that an item of the estimates be reduced. My recollection is that he carried that against the government of the day. That was the kind of activity which he considered at that time a private member ought to undertake in order to save the minister of finance something for his next budget.

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PC

Edmund Davie Fulton

Progressive Conservative

Mr. Fulton:

Will the minister permit a question? Does the minister recall an occasion some five years ago when I did the same thing in connection with an item in the estimates of the Minister of Transport, and the Minister of Transport said it was a vote of non-confidence in the government? The whip was cracked and all hon. members opposite came in and voted down the reduction.

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LIB

Walter Edward Harris (Minister of Finance and Receiver General; Leader of the Government in the House of Commons; Liberal Party House Leader)

Liberal

Mr. Harris:

The house knows perfectly well my views about party activity in this house. It is the duty of the government to carry on the business of the country. It is the duty of the opposition to do their best to indicate the weaknesses in the policies being

Special Committee on Estimates followed by the government; and if in accordance with that duty they can make motions in this house which would topple the government, then I think it is their duty to take that step.

On the other hand, my hon. friend asked me whether I am aware of what he tried to do. I confess I am. I recall the occasion, and certainly I would not suggest that he should not follow that course. If he tries to do it on my own estimates I shall try to defeat him, but I would be the first to admit his right to take the action he has indicated.

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PC

Edmund Davie Fulton

Progressive Conservative

Mr. Fulton:

Would the government regard it as a vote of non-confidence? There is not much chance of saving money if the government takes that attitude.

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LIB

Walter Edward Harris (Minister of Finance and Receiver General; Leader of the Government in the House of Commons; Liberal Party House Leader)

Liberal

Mr. Harris:

I think I have answered all the direct questions. However, I should comment on what has been said by the hon. member for Kamloops. It will be noted that his opinion about the nature of this committee differs radically from that of others in his own party. He thinks in terms of a committee-and I understand the hon. member for Greenwood shares this view-economy-minded in the sense of trying to cut down the estimates by showing that all the money is not needed. On the other hand, I take it that other members of his party think not so much in terms of an economy measure as of an exploratory measure which would arm them with better information to debate policy. I am not going to say which of the two will result, because I am quite sure the committee will find by experience what is the best course to follow.

The point I am making is this. I am glad we circumscribed the activities of the committee in the first instance, so that it would know what to do. If hon. members choose to work in the committee, as I think they will, with the objectives in view that have been discussed today, they will find, after some time, what are the limits and what are the advantages of the committee, and they will be able to report to the house on details of the estimates in such a manner that the two main results I have mentioned will probably occur.

I would point out that at no time did I place the saving of time first. I said that the committee would give members, both on the committee and off the committee, more information so there would be more intelligent discussion in the committee of supply. When the estimates come back from the estimates committee it may well be that we shall not have the detailed cross-examination about a particular item, but that we shall have a longer policy debate than has been the case up to the present time. Most members of

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Inquiries of the Ministry the opposition have expressed the desire that that should be so; that we should not waste the time of the committee of the whole on details.

I leave it to the committee, Mr. Speaker, to work it out. I think we should give them all the encouragement we can, and I hope that after not necessarily one year, but perhaps two or three years, we shall find that this committee is in fact functioning to the advantage of the taxpayers of Canada, both with respect to economy and greater criticism of policy which will be possible in the committee of supply.

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CCF

Stanley Howard Knowles (Whip of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation)

Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (C.C.F.)

Mr. Knowles:

Will the minister permit one question?

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PC

Donald Methuen Fleming

Progressive Conservative

Mr. Fleming:

May I ask the minister a question? The present resolution makes no reference, as do most similar resolutions and as the one above it on the order paper does, to further powers of the committee; for instance, that the committee shall have power to send for persons, papers and records, and to print from day to day its minutes of proceedings and evidence. Is it the thought of the minister that the committee shall or shall not have either or both of those powers?

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February 8, 1955