Auditor General Michael Ferguson feels ‘deja vu all over again’

Despite his five years of pointing out flaws in the bureaucracy, Michael Ferguson says a number of them continue to show up in his reports year after year

Auditor General Michael Ferguson speaks at a news conference at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on Tuesday, June 9, 2015 to discuss the Report on Senators' Expenses. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

Auditor General Michael Ferguson. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

OTTAWA — The federal auditor general challenged the government Tuesday, in language and tone that he has not used before, to stop making the same mistakes and think of the people departments serve and who pay the bills: the taxpayers.

One day after marking the midpoint of his 10-year mandate, Michael Ferguson said he could not wait any longer to speak out about recurring issues flagged in his audits that the government neglects to correct, framing concerns emerging from his latest batch of reviews in the immortal words of legendary baseball player Yogi Berra: “It’s deja vu all over again.”

The military was once again singled out for improperly estimating the cost of equipment. Ferguson cited the navy’s Victoria-class submarines, whose maintenance was originally supposed to cost $35 million per vessel, but has most recently clocked in at a whopping $321 million. That raised comparisons to Ferguson’s 2012 report about questionable cost estimates for the F-35 fighter jet.

The ongoing Beyond the Border initiative, designed to ease the flow of goods and people between Canada and the U.S. while improving national security, is unable to adequately demonstrate its overall effectiveness to ordinary Canadians, he said.

Individuals and companies who object to income tax assessments made by the Canada Revenue Agency are being made to wait unacceptably long for their complaints to be acknowledged, let alone resolved, costing taxpayers money no matter the outcome of their appeal. About 79,000 cases worth nearly $4 billion took five or more years to be resolved, Ferguson said.

And Ferguson said indigenous offenders are not getting the help they need to reintegrate into society once released from prison, while changes to federal land claims – meant to expedite matters – are having the opposite effect.

Few aboriginal offenders were paroled in 2015-16 _ more than two-thirds were instead released as a result of having reached their statutory release dates, the audit found. Three-quarters of those were released directly into the community from maximum or medium-security institutions, rather than through a graduated program to facilitate reintegration.

Ferguson also found fault with the federal government’s efforts to streamline indigenous land claims – resulting in funding cuts, less shared information and barriers that have hindered First Nations’ access to the claims process and the resolution of claims.

He wrote that federal efforts to help First Nations will continue to “squander the potential and lives” of the indigenous population if the government doesn’t build solutions around people, instead of defaulting to arguments about money and process – a situation he called unacceptable.

“It’s frustrating to see that there is a lack of emphasis on what the citizen has to live through in these types of programs and there needs to be a change to the way some of these programs are actually delivered,” Ferguson said.

The auditor general challenged departments to finally focus on the needs of people, rather than their own internal processes.

“These problems are not problems that are new,” Ferguson told reporters after the release of his latest reports.

“It’s time for the departments to put their attention to the fact that it’s the results that matter, it’s not the process. The process is an end to the right results. So is it going to be any different this time? All I can do is guess lay down the challenge.”

Six cabinet ministers representing departments identified in Ferguson’s report said they agreed with the findings in each review and vowed to meet the auditor general’s challenge. Treasury Board President Scott Brison said the government would provide results “in the near future” of how services were being delivered and promised that departmental reports would no longer have information that was difficult to understand or completely useless for those reading the documents.

“We have to up our game as government. We have to deliver better results to Canadians, better value for taxpayers,” Brison said.

Ferguson challenged MPs and Senators to make use of his findings by working through their committees.

New Democrat David Christopherson agreed, saying he will urge committees to use the reports to hold departments to account.

“It’s no longer acceptable to just say well, we set this target … for ourselves and we achieved it, when the reality is, when you look at the services, Canadians are waiting longer and longer to get answers to their business with government,” he said.

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