Auditing the Auditor – Liveblogging Sheila Fraser at Public Accounts

10:49:33 AM

10:49:33 AM
Wow, it’s been a while, hasn’t it? I can’t actually remember the last time I covered Public Accounts – I must have been back since the RCMP pension scandal, but I’m at a loss to remember when, or why.

As for why I’m here today, it’s mostly because of the special guest star, Sheila Fraser, the one remaining Officer of Parliament who has yet to antagonize the Conservatives by issuing a less than glowing independent report. The thing is, that’s mostly because she’s still working through a backlog of audits from the bad old days of the Liberal government. But as she ticks off the items on her audit to-do list, she comes ever closer to examining the mad managerial skills of this government, and you know how well that tends to go over. If not, Linda Keen will be happy to remind you.

Anyway, all this is to say that, after the surprisingly testy response that the Conservative-appointed Conflict of Interest and Integrity Commissioner, Mary Dawson, received from the government side at Ethics, I thought it might be interesting to see if the honeymoon is over for Sheila Fraser, who has traditionally been the official Conservative pin-up girl for accountability and excoriating the Liberals.

11:04:47 AM

I should probably note that the meeting is indeed underway. Fraser is giving what I devoutly hope is a brief opening statement. It’s actually a bit meta what’s going on here today, as the committee won’t be hearing lurid tales of civil servants gone wild; it is, in fact, the Office of the Auditor General that is under the microscope today. (No, she hasn’t done anything wrong. It’s just part of the main estimates process.)

She’ll give a little speech about how her office has performed over the last year and discuss future plans. You’ve all fallen asleep by this point, haven’t you? Well, I can’t say I blame you. But the game can change when MPs are able to ask questions. Even if the AG’s office escapes unscathed, there are always ways to launch passive aggressive attacks against the party/ies on the other side of the table, and that goes for opposition and government alike.

11:12:51 AM
Here we go. First up, Borys W. Oh crap, I forgot about Borys – who, I’ll stress, is a fine MP, but has the most fiendishly unspellable last name in the House, which is why he will go by his first name on subsequent reference.

Borys, then, wants to know why her office is having trouble with audits and special investigations that target agencies and crown corporations, and asks for specific examples. I bet he thinks it can somehow be blamed on the current goverment. She notes that some agencies have participated willingly, but there seems to be a budgetary issue – the cost of performing examinations has increased. Fraser points out there are more crown corporations, and more special investigations underway, which is why the cost has gone up. That seems reasonable. She also admits to being “troubled” that some investigations are dragging on far longer than expected, and to being “overly aggressive” in setting budgets.

11:19:41 AM

Shoutout to the Ottawa Citizen and a “disturbing” headline that appeared last fall that seemed to suggest that an internal audit of the Auditor General Office discovered – horrors! – rules on hospitality and entertainment expenses being skirted, as well as other miscellaneous shenanigans. Unfazed, Fraser assures him that the audit has been taken seriously, and blames the lack of ministerial sign-off requirements for hospitality expenses – which mostly involve lockups and those kinds of events – for the administrative confusion.

11:24:26 AM

Jean-Yves Laforest is up for the Bloc Québécois, and… Oh, tell me this isn’t happening; he wants to debate the merits of full accrual accounting. Please let that be a one-off question. No one must know my secret. (Oh, fine, I’ll tell you: I find it very very hard to be fascinated by competing accounting standards and practices. Please don’t judge me too harshly.)

11:28:06 AM
Okay, we seem to have escaped the quagmire that is accrual accounting. Laforest has moved onto the age-old question: Should the power and resources of the AGO be increased? Oddly, the answer always seems to depend on whether one is in government or opposition. Fraser, as is her wont, doesn’t jump at the bait; she is quite refreshing, really, in her utter lack of interest in increasing her fiefdom. Well, other than the whole Environment Commissioner debacle.

11:30:48 AM
On to the Conservatives and David Sweet, who wonders when her office was last given a performance audit by an external firm. A while ago is the answer. She hopes to have it done by the time her term expires. Wait, when is that? It feels like she’s always been the Auditor General, but she’s not even halfway through her mandate, is she?

11:32:57 AM
Sweet wonders why three audits were canceled, according to the last annual report; she notes that sometimes, other stuff happens, or people quit, or something else ends up taking more time and money than expected. Something’s gotta give, in other words.

Can you imagine how very mobius loopy it would be to audit the Auditor General? Like being trapped in a very boring Escher print.

11:36:00 AM
I should note that, while I was sitting here before the meeting began, not one but two staffers came over to express surprise by my presence here. For the record, I’m not just a committee chaos junkie. I do substance, too.

11:37:42 AM
Yay, it’s David Christopherson for the NDP. He too lauds her work thus far, but concludes there is still room for improvement. In fact, he’s apparetly more than a little bit ticked off by departments that ignore her – and the committee’s – reports. In fact, fully half of all departments are failing to live up to the recommendations, he notes. Fraser wholeheartedly agrees, and shares his frustration: it’s really up to the government, she reminds the committee. There’s only so much she and the committee can do, and some departments are “very difficult.”

11:43:37 AM
After hearty congratulations over various national and international tributes and titles that she has picked up over the last few months – he reads one aloud, and it’s like, thirteen words long – very impressive, Christopherson notes. But if she’s gallivanting all over the world as an Auditor General Superstar, won’t that make it hard for her to carry out her official duties? No, it won’t, is the answer.

11:47:03 AM
The chair – Shawn Murphy – interrupts the proceedings briefly to ask about a motion introduced by Christopherson, but really, it just serves to build suspense as the talking stick is handed off to …

11:48:06 AM
Mark Holland! Probably the Liberal MP most likely to cause that vein on David Sweet’s head to start visibly throbbing. Following up to the NDP line of questioning, he also wonders why departments are shillyshallying and dithering. Fraser again gives a measured response: it may not be realistic, she acknowledges, to expect 100% compliance, but the number can certainly be improved.

I can’t say the government members appear particularly hostile to Fraser. In fact, if I had to describe the general mood on that side of the table, which I guess I do, what with the liveblogging, it would be bored.

11:56:43 AM
Brian Fitzpatrick, everyone! He wants to know how she picks her “special projects” and why the housing crisis and the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation isn’t on the list. Actually, Fraser points out, it is – well, indirectly. Her office is in the midst of special investigation into CMHC, which will be released next year. So that’s that.

Wait, no – that isn’t that. Fitzpatrick isn’t finished. He wonders if she shares his concern on the accountability and control that government has over crown corporations, which leaves her a little bit at a loss. It makes me wonder which crown corporations Fitzpatrick is fantasizing about being the target of a reverse coup d’etat by the government. CBC? Elections Canada? Huh.

12:02:44 PM
Okay, yeah, I was right, as far as Fitzpatrick’s real issue. He just went off on a weird little tangent about crown corporations in disputes with government, and how the government ought to be in control, as far as he can tell. Otherwise, it confuses the public, apparently.

12:06:38 PM
That may have been as close as we’re going to get to fireworks – actually, I wouldn’t mind digging a little deeper there; could this be the next phase of government reform?

The chair, by the way, is doing a wrap-up. Although he just asked an interesting question: Under the FAA, her office was given the power to go into third party organizations that received grants or loans from the government, up to a certain amount. That was mostly related to foundations, she notes. There was a proposal floating around that would allow her to audit any individual or organization who got more than a million dollars from the government, but she wasn’t comfortable with that.

12:12:24 PM
Every now and then, I forget I’m not invisible and start tapping my foot. Luckily, this is a pretty mellow committee. Otherwise, I’ll bet I’d be getting the glaring of a lifetime right now from the clerk.

12:15:43 PM
Okay, second round of questions. Not sure how much more we’re going to find out about the inner workings of the AGO.

Okay, right as I typed that, Mauril Bélanger decided to prove me wrong, and ask about the independence of officers of Parliament. She promises to provide the committee with a copy of her report, which deals with policy on setting budgets for parliamentary officers. Belanger wants to make sure members of Parliament are kept informed of any developments, given the keen interest they have on such matters. Fraser seems a bit surprised by his enthusiasm for being part of the process. Not that she’s saying no.

12:20:45 PM
Okay, I’m going to ‘fess up and admit that I have absolutely no clue what Daniel Petit just asked. It seems to have something to do with transfers to the provinces. She notes there is no mechanism to audit transfers as far as what the province does with the money, although she can report on how the federal government manages it.

Okay, now he’s asking about CIDA – currently the subject of a special investigation – and grumbling about how people in his riding want to know which countries benefit from Canadian aid dollars and whether she’ll travel abroad to follow the money. This is an odd tangent, but Fraser runs with it and notes that it has been four years since her office audited CIDA.

12:26:25 PM

Back to the Bloc Québécois, who, I’m sure, are thrilled by the idea of Ottawa getting its audit-happy hands on the provincial treasury. Roger Gaudet wonders if it would encourage departments to follow her recommendations if the alternative was to be condemned by the House, which is so adorable I can hardly stand it. The Bloc totally has a crush on the parliamentary system; it just won’t admit it and instead pulls its pigtails and threatens to separate. Okay, I think I’ve officially lost the thread of this meeting.

12:32:00 PM

Mike Lake – a Conservative – wonders whether OAG tracks recalcitrant deprtments; not as a rule, she says, but there are follow-up audits — including a fairly extensive one at Indian Affairs.

12:36:26 PM
According to a survey included in her annual report, 92% of MPs find some value in her reports. What’s with the other eight percent, Lake asks. She notes that this was a limited sample – only four committees, not the entire House of Commons, which probably means a margin of error of like, 50%.

12:38:55 PM
David Christopherson just asked a very good question that produced an even better answer from Fraser – the money quote, I would suggest.  There are certain statutory conditions that apply to all officers of Parliament that give an “inappropriate role” to a minister or the government itself. “My communications strategies aren’t going to PCO,” she quips.

Wait, why does PCO get anyone’s communications strategy? That seems odd.

Anyway, Christopherson is widely supportive of her position and offers the services of this humble committee, if necessary, to force the issue in Parliament. Yes, bow, that sudden breeze was a shot.

12:47:45 PM
Borys wants to know about that PCO policy too, the one that requires officers of Parliament to turn over their respective communications strategy. Specifically, when did that come into effect? She doesn’t really answer the question. It’s a draft policy and she’s not sure if was part of the old policy.

And… that’s it. Huh. Definitely worth following up on that, I’d say. But right now, it’s time for a mad dash to the next committee.