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C-44, Budget Implementation Bill, 2017, No. 1 - Third Reading

 

Hon. Yuen Pau Woo moved third reading of Bill C-44, An Act to implement certain provisions of the budget tabled in Parliament on March 22, 2017 and other measures, as amended.

Hon. Serge Joyal: Honourable senators, I was not intending to speak in this debate, but a question raised by Senator Woo to Senator Day triggered a reflection in my mind. It was the question about the limit to the authorization of borrowing that was included in the bill that should satisfy us, or, in a particular context, quiet our apprehension that in fact everything is under control.

I want to mention what this amount of money is, the limit that the bill contains. It's in clause 103 of the bill, on page 67, and I will read it:

4 Despite section 3 and any other Act of Parliament, but subject to section 6, the total of the following amounts must not at any time exceed $1,168,000,000,000: . . . .

That's the credit card of the Minister of Finance. In other words, if you take the amount of money that is the debt of Canada now, which is $653,444,473,000, this bill creates the authority for the Minister of Finance to double the overall debt of Canada without Parliament in any way knowing before three years how much has accrued to the Canadian credit card for which each one of us is responsible.

This is a very serious issue, and it's not because there is a limit that it doesn't deserve sober second thought. If the limit were $2 billion, the principle would be the same, in my opinion. Put that into your own personal situation. We all have two, three or four credit cards in our pockets. Imagine that for all your credit cards, by the stroke of a pen, your margin would double without you ever going back to your banker to check if your assets are still worth the amount of authorization that you receive. We all know that. We negotiate our personal finances with banks, and we know how it works.

What we want to do with this is frame the borrowing authority in a way where we still control the purse of Canadians, and that's what Senator Day is proposing. That's the essential question put in simple terms, the way I see it.

It's the same with the infrastructure bank. I was listening to Senator Saint-Germain, and will I tell you why I supported a division of the bill and why I thought it was important to look into the infrastructure bank. It's because of the section of the bill that authorizes the Minister of Finance, and it's proposed section 23 of Division 18 of the bill.

It reads as follows:

The Minister of Finance may pay to the Bank, out of the Consolidated Revenue Fund, amounts of not more than $35,000,000,000.

My reaction to that, when I first read it, was, "My God, is this a slush fund for the Minister of Finance?"

Some Hon. Senators: Oh, oh!

Senator Joyal: Is this what the Minister of Finance will now have as authority to give direction to the bank? Read the various terms and conditions for loans or loan guarantees. A minister from a region will say, "Listen, this infrastructure project is so important for our re-election, and the bank has given authorization to another region. We have to balance it."

We know how strong regional identity and pressure are in Canada. We all know; we have all lived through it.

I just give you an example. I was saying to my friend Senator Baker that when there was a seat available on the Supreme Court bench, there was pressure from Newfoundland to have a judge on the bench, and there was pressure from all the Maritime provinces to have a Maritime judge on the bench.

That's fine; I have no problem with that at all. But we all know how easy it is for one region to pit itself against another region on any sensitive issue. We all know how those projects become symbolic of the dynamism of a region. Mayors, MPs, chambers of commerce and boards of trade all rally behind a project. Who controls the soundness of the decision and how arm's length it is from government? I repeat: How arm's length is the government from decisions that are given or could be given under political pressure to play with the $35 billion slush fund?

That's essentially the question that I thought was important: that there were governance issues in relation to the bank that needed to be satisfied. I thought the proposal to divide the bill was a sound approach — not to change one cent of the $35 billion, not a dollar — to ensure that the structure of the governance was waterproof from political play and gimmick.

All of us are senior citizens. We have experience in life, especially those of us who have had political experience in the past.

That was my essential question in relation to the bank. To me, to give the Minister of Finance the authority to double the debt of Canada within three years, without any control of Parliament, is an abdication of responsible government. Responsible government exists as much in the other place as it exists in this place. The government is responsive in this place — not only to issues, Senator Pratte, dealing with minorities or regions, but with regard to any of its decisions.

That's what section 53 of the Constitution says. Section 53 of the Constitution does not say the Senate should amend or defeat budget bills. It states:

. . . Bills for appropriating any Part of the Public Revenue, or for imposing any Tax or Impost, shall originate in the House of Commons.

For the rest, it is section 91, which is very clear. I will read it to you to make sure it's part of your reflection. Section 91 states the following:

It shall be Lawful for the Queen, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate and the House of Commons, to make Laws for the Peace, Order and Good Government of Canada . . .

I humbly say to you that we have a role in the good governance of Canada. We have a role to give our advice and consent. Before I give my advice and consent on an authorization, as we say in French —

[Translation]

de piger dans la sacoche, or to raid the public purse, when we have a $600-billion debt, I think we need to be able to verify what is happening with that money every year and whether its use can be justified.

[English]

I think there is a need to pause — sober second thought. Maybe the government has a good reason to set the level of our borrowing authority without any control before three years, but that should be part of our daily preoccupation in this chamber. It is as important for me, as a parliamentarian, to make sure that I control the purse as it is for me to make sure that linguistic minorities are protected, that regions have their voices heard and that other minorities in Canada are included in the government's priorities.

I am not at all of the view that we have no role. I keep hearing in this chamber that we should yield to the other place because we're not elected. Well, I'm sorry; the structure of the Parliament of Canada is one elected, one appointed. That is bicameral at its best.

Some Hon. Senators: Hear, hear!

Senator Joyal: To try to instill in my mind that I should have a bad conscience if I look into decisions that come from the other place that will affect each and every Canadian in their daily work and in their way of managing their own affairs and how they pay taxes — and I also pay taxes, like any Canadian — I think is to change the nature of the Parliament of Canada. Mind you, I don't want to put on trial the other place.

I will quote to you from our dear, esteemed friend, former senator John B. Stewart. He was a professor, an MP and a senator. He was one of the authorities when I entered this place, a senator we always listened to, at the same level as former Senator Lowell Murray. They were always keen in relation to the scrutiny of estimates and the study of budget bills.

This is how Senator Stewart saw the other place approaching the study and debate of estimates, budget bills and supplementary estimates in terms of any financial bill. I read from this famous book, where he states:

Various explanations may be offered —

— to the limited role that parliamentarians in the House of Commons assume in relation to financial bills —

Let me mention a few. First, the rapid turnover of Members means that many Members never achieve more than a limited understanding of policies and programs.

That's not what we do in the Senate. Our friend Senator Day has been on that committee for 12 years, and Senator Cools has been on that committee for probably 20 years.

Second, detailed work is far too dull and mundane for many ambitious politicians.

When I listened to Senator Day going through all the estimates and reporting on each of them, my first reaction was, "My God, I prefer to sit on the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee."

Third, detailed work on a committee is not news and is not susceptible to bring a lot of votes.

So you won't be in The Hill Times on a daily basis.

I'm looking at my friend Senator Tkachuk now.

Fourth, some Opposition Members really do not want to suggest improvements in programs and policies; the worse a government's programs and policies are, the greater the chance of defeating that government in the next election.

I like that one very much, honourable senators.

Finally:

Fifth, a House Leader and a Whip who get their Members to support their estimates and get them through quietly are "smiled upon" by their master.

Those are the words of former Senator Stewart.

Honourable senators, this is, of course, a bill that contains a lot of other sections, divisions and issues. I have listened carefully to Senator Munson and those who talk about the escalator clause on the booze and whatnot. The government can decide to run the risk of losing what I call political capital. The government sometimes has to go to bat because they believe in some policy issue that challenges public opinion and so forth. I totally agree with that. I've been part of a government that was famous for that under Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

I don't need to remind you how much that Prime Minister enjoyed doing that, to a point. He liked to challenge Canadians on matters of principle and on matters of policies that affected our status and conditions as Canadians. I was defeated in 1984 because of that and I have absolutely no regrets at all about having been defeated on the basis of a commitment to those kinds of changes that bring about a Canada that is more reflective of our aspirations and ideals.

But when I'm confronted with a bill like this that proposes to curtail the power of the fundamental institution that represents Canadians in its two capacities, the sober second thought we have to bring to legislation and the political imperative in the other place, I think that we have to be very well aware of what we do. As long as I am in this chamber, nobody will prevent me from telling you and sharing with you my concern about a budget bill that has so many implications for the future conditions of Canadians.

Some Hon. Senators: Hear, hear!

Senator Woo: Would Senator Joyal kindly take a question?

The Hon. the Speaker: Senator Joyal's time has expired. Are you asking for more time to answer a question, Senator Joyal?

Agreed, honourable senators?

Hon. Senators: Agreed.

Senator Woo: Thank you, colleagues. My question, Senator Joyal, is indeed based on briefing notes from the Department of Finance, the same briefing notes that all of you have received. I do sincerely hope you have them in front of you, because it will help you provide an accurate answer. You talked about the importance of detailed work on budgets and I would ask you now for accurate details on the borrowing authority that you mentioned.

You correctly talked about the stock of government debt that is in place, something in the order of $690 billion. Then you asserted that the government is seeking authority to double its borrowing over three years.

Can you tell us the amount of the outstanding stock of debt of Crown corporations that are, in fact, included in the borrowing authority under the Budget Implementation Act? Based on that higher number, what is the correct amount of incremental borrowing that the government is actually asking for over the three-year period?

Senator Joyal: Thank you, Senator Woo, for that question. I don't have the figure in front of me, but what I do have in front of me is section 6 of article 103, which states that even beyond that $1,168,000,000,000, the Minister of Finance is allowed to borrow even more in specific circumstances:

The Minister may borrow an amount under an order made under paragraph 46.1(a) or (b) of the Financial Administration Act even if that borrowing causes the maximum amount referred to in section 4 of this Act to be exceeded.

In other words, there's another possibility to add to it. We can play with the figures, Senator Woo. We can say this one has more than $1 billion or this one has $150 billion. It's the principle that is there. I'm concerned with the principle. I'm not an accountant; I'm a lawyer. But when I see the structure of the system that is put in place, then I can put my finger on it and say, "There is something that's not right there."

Senator Woo: If I may follow up, would you also agree, Senator Joyal, with the principle that, as our debates are widely broadcast and information is disseminated, we provide, as far as possible, accurate information on such an important matter as the amount of incremental borrowing that the government is proposing? Would you perhaps undertake, when you have the time, with your office, to do the research to come up with that figure so that if there is a clarification that's needed, you could provide that to the public?

Senator Joyal: Thank you, Senator Woo. I have absolutely no problem and I don't want to quarrel about the figures. That I totally recognize. As I stated, it's not my preoccupation.

My preoccupation is the special authority that we give here to the Minister of Finance, without us receiving a yearly report or a balance sheet. On a monthly basis, each one of us receives a bill telling us how much money we have put on our credit card and how much we have to pay back. I can tell you how much I received last month on my credit card, and I know where my finances stand. What we want is that Canadians know, on a regular basis, how much there is on their credit card and how much the Minister of Finance has put on it. That's the only thing we want to know.

Some Hon. Senators: Hear, hear!

The Hon. the Speaker: Order, colleagues, please. Are honourable senators ready for the question?

Hon. Senators: Question.

The Hon. the Speaker: It was moved by the Honourable Senator Woo, seconded by the Honourable Senator Cools, that the bill, as amended, be read the third time.

Is it your pleasure, honourable senators, to adopt the motion?

Some Hon. Senators: Yes.

Some Hon. Senators: On division.

(Motion agreed to and bill, as amended, read third time and passed, on division.)