When no one is watching

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A weird thing happens in the House of Assembly each spring after the finance minister tables the provincial budget: For a few short weeks, senior bureaucrats are welcomed into the House to answer questions about how the government is spending money.

For hours, ministers and their top staffers sit down and answer opposition parties' questions about the budget.

MHAs actually talk to each other.

Even more alarmingly, they listen to each other.

It's informal, informative, and downright collegial.

Welcome to the bizarro world of Estimates Committee.

It's fantastically boring.

On a recent Monday, Environment Minister Terry French was asked about line item 2.3.01 under the Environment and Conservation chapter of the Estimates Budget 2012 book.

According to the Salaries sub-item under item 2.3.01 (Environmental Assessment) the government budgeted $1.033 million in 2011, but only spent $973,400. In 2012 the government is budgeting even less for salaries, at $793,400.

NDP environment critic George Murphy asked French why the drop in budget.

French explained that the Muskrat Falls joint review panel environmental assessment panel had wrapped up its work, so now the government isn't spending as much on environmental assessments.

The level of minutia they get into is sometimes unreal.

On Thursday - I'm not kidding - Education Minister Clyde Jackman explained one budget variance by saying that they had to buy toner for the office printer.

Jackman told me that he actually relishes Estimates, because it's a chance to just sit down and talk about what's going on in his department.

"I enjoy it," he said. "It's an opportunity for me as minister to speak to the specific initiatives that are happening in our department, and it's good news."

Both of the critics who were asking questions to Jackman and his bureaucrats acknowledged that there's no real political theatre or games when it comes to Estimates.

"This is an information gathering exercise. It's not an exercise whereby one is trying to score political points," said New Democrat MHA Dale Kirby.

Liberal Andrew Parsons called the exercise a "fact finding mission" when they're doing Estimates.

"That's usually what does not happen in the house, for probably political reasons, but it seems like the politics is sort of removed from this," Parsons said. "It is easier, obviously, when you don't have people shouting and getting on with foolishness, you know?"

A large part of what makes it so dull and civilized is probably the simple fact that nobody is watching.

Everyone watches question period, so there tends to be a lot of histrionics and political theatre.

On the other hand nobody - and I mean NOBODY - watches estimates (except, maybe for the saddest, most pathetic politics reporters.)

When you're sitting and watching, you can sort of understand why the NDP especially has been calling for all-party legislative committees so consistently, and for so long now. It's a very nice idea for a few committee members to sit down and ask questions of, say, Nalcor CEO Ed Martin to better understand the ins and the outs of the Muskrat Falls project.

Of course, every party has had that sort of opportunity, it just happens behind closed doors.

And of course, in this imagined situation where Martin is speaking to a House committee, I think that's the sort of thing a lot of journalists would show up to watch - and the drama and the histrionics would probably follow.

The good news for harried journalists is that we won't have to add committees to our already overflowing list of things to cover any time soon.

Here's Government House Leader Jerome Kennedy answering a question about the possibility of active legislative committees in the House last week:

"In our Cabinet procedures we have Treasury Board, we have Social Policy, and we have Economic Policy Committees. Those are the committees where Cabinet papers and Cabinet decisions are looked at, Mr. Speaker. For example, if there is going to be an expenditure of money it goes to Treasury Board and or Economic Policy, Mr. Speaker. We have those committees. They inform the government process. They make recommendations, and Cabinet then considers those recommendations."

Kennedy also said this:

"Mr. Speaker, we have been here in the House since March 5 now. A number of bills have come before this House. There are various stages, Mr. Speaker, with the bill. After second reading there is debate and that debate can go on forever, Mr. Speaker, as long as the Opposition wants it to go on. So there is lots of opportunity for discussion, but the main process in determining government policy, having been elected as the government in an election that took place in October of last year, Mr. Speaker, is to determine where we are heading as a government. As I indicated, we have main committees that look at all of our policies and our economic spending."

In case you missed that, it bears repeating: The government has cabinet committees, comprised entirely of members from one party, which meet behind closed doors. And because the people elected the PC Party as the government last October, that's all we really need - except for Estimates.

***

By the way, I know it's been a while since I've updated this blog. Sorry.

And to the MHA (who I will not name) who sent me a snarky Twitter direct message to say, "You know the key to building blog readership is to update regularly..." Thanks very much for reading! Oh, and I'll be keeping an extra close eye on your constituency spending allowance public disclosures.

Kidding! Just kidding …

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