The Government of Canada outlines its spending and tax priorities to Parliament and Canadians in its annual budget, and presents its spending plans for parliamentary approval in estimates documents. In the past, the main estimates have not contained new spending measures announced in the budget because the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat prepared them before the Department of Finance Canada completed the budget.
This lack of alignment in the content of the main estimates and the budget made it difficult for parliamentarians to examine the government’s complete spending plans for the coming fiscal year, and delayed the implementation of new spending outlined in the budget.
Changes Proposed in 2016
In October 2016, the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat outlined several proposals to amend the estimates process, including changing the timing of the main estimates. According to the Secretariat, improving the alignment of proposed spending in the main estimates with new measures announced in the budget would require delaying the tabling of the main estimates so they would follow the budget rather than precede it. Additionally, the government would need to adjust its internal processes so that funding, policy and program expenditure approvals would be taken in advance of the budget, or closely afterward.
The Secretariat proposed delaying the tabling of the main estimates from no later than 1 March to no later than 1 May, which would require changing the House of Commons’ Standing Orders.
On 20 June 2017, the House of Commons adopted a motion to amend the Standing Orders. The amendments related to the estimates process are in place for the duration of the current Parliament, until the next federal election.
In response to concerns that the Secretariat’s proposal would reduce the time available to consider the main estimates, the motion changed the date of tabling the main estimates to no later than 16 April, rather than the originally proposed 1 May.
The government needs parliamentary approval of funding prior to the beginning of the fiscal year on 1 April. Previously, this approval was accomplished through interim supply, which was usually three twelfths of the amounts outlined in the main estimates.
As the main estimates will now be presented after the beginning of the fiscal year, the government will seek parliamentary approval of funding for the first three months of the new fiscal year through interim estimates. They will be based on the previous year’s main estimates, with adjustments, and referred to committees for review. There is no specific date for the tabling of interim estimates, but they will be considered by the House of Commons in the supply period ending 26 March.
The deadline for the leader of the opposition to select two departments for consideration by committees of the whole has been moved to 8 May rather than 1 May, and the deadline to give notice of a motion to extend consideration of a department’s main estimates has been moved to 10 June rather than 31 May.
Additionally, committees have until 10 June, instead of 31 May, to report to the House of Commons the main estimates that were referred to them, or be deemed to have reported.
Under these changes, there will no longer be spring supplementary estimates, and the fall supplementary estimates will be called supplementary estimates (A).
There continues to be no timeline or requirement for the presentation of a budget.
The Parliamentary Budget Officer expressed concern that the new timeline for the tabling of the main estimates may not achieve its goal of improving spending alignment, “[u]nless the Government is able to present a clear plan to reform its internal management processes.” The lack of a definitive timeline for the presentation of the budget has been a longstanding issue, as it is more difficult for the government to coordinate its processes. In 1985, Michael Wilson, then Minister of Finance, commented, “The government’s own internal planning, including its timetable and that of Parliament, is complicated by the lack of a regular budgetary cycle.”
In 2017, the Parliamentary Budget Officer examined the number of budget measures that were included in the supplementary estimates (A), which were tabled seven weeks after the budget. He concluded that, “Given the limited number of Budget 2017 measures that are included in these supplementary estimates, [the government’s] proposal may not result in meaningful improvement in the alignment of the budget and the main estimates.”
The Australian Process
The Secretariat indicated that Australia provides a good example of spending alignment between the budget and main estimates. In fact, the Australian federal government presents its budget and the associated appropriation bills to Parliament at the same time, with consistent information, approximately six weeks before the beginning of the fiscal year.
In order to achieve this alignment, detailed departmental budget proposals are reviewed by the Department of the Prime Minister, the Treasury and the Department of Finance prior to their inclusion in the budget. Also, preliminary budget decisions are made by the Expenditure Review Committee, a sub-Committee of Cabinet, and the full Cabinet approves the budget.
Author: Alex Smith, Library of Parliament
 A brief outline of the unamended parliamentary financial cycle can be found in Alex Smith, The Parliamentary Financial Cycle: An Introduction, HillNote, Library of Parliament, Ottawa, 7 December 2015.
 Previously, a supplementary estimates was tabled in early May. The timing of the tabling of the fall (early November) and winter (early February) supplementary estimates will remain unchanged.
 Parliamentary Budget Officer, Consideration for Parliament in Reforming the Business of Supply, Ottawa, November 2016.
The Honourable Michael H. Wilson, Minister of Finance, The Canadian Budgetary Process, Proposals for Improvement, Ottawa, May 1985.