The government might welcome this tough Auditor General’s report

Lots of new material to distract from the Senate scandal
Auditor General Michael Ferguson speaks during a press conference at the National Press Theatre following the tabling of his 2013 fall report in the House of Commons, Tuesday, Nov.26, 2013 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Adrian Wyld/CP

For most governments on most mornings, the release of a report from the Auditor General of Canada is an unpleasant ritual. On such days, cabinet ministers and their staffers typically fret over how any damaging findings from the AG— arguably the most credible and authoritative of the various official federal watchdogs—might set a new and distracting agenda for debate. But today, Stephen Harper can only hope that comes to pass.

Today’s fall report from Auditor General Michael Ferguson offers the opposition parties a tempting à la carte selection of question period starters. The Harper government prides itself on sound fiscal management? Ferguson finds five of seven departments he audited have made “unsatisfactory progress” toward controlling their financial reporting. The Conservatives like to think they pay special attention to the everyday concerns of ordinary Canadians? Ferguson reports that they’ve allowed the government’s online services to be a daily source of frustration for citizens trying to connect over the Internet.

Hungry for something more potentially alarming? The AG identifies serious “weakness” in the way the Canada Food Inspection Agency follows-up on contamination scares, like last year’s big beef recall, and he pinpoints ways that Canada Border Services Agency and the RCMP are failing to prevent people “who pose a threat to Canadians’ safety and security” from entering the country.

And there’s more. It might sound like today is shaping up as a bad day for Harper’s government. Yet I suspect their preparation for today’s QP, when it comes to getting ready to defend their actions on the AG’s findings, will be a relief. Any or all of these serious shortcomings flagged by Ferguson would be far preferable as subjects for the government to debate with the NDP and Liberals than the ongoing Senate spending affair.

It’s not that the issues probed by Ferguson’s team of auditors are less troubling. But scandal, more than any failing of policy or performance, carries with it the potential to dramatically alter the popular view of a political leader. Harper knows this more than just about anyone. The Sen. Doug Finley, the former top Harper campaign chieftain who died last spring, told me in 2011 that when Harper forged the new Conservative party in 2003, he and his inner-circle strategists figured it would take five years before they could hope to seriously challenge the Liberals in an election. As it turned out, they were competitive almost immediately, entirely because the 2004 sponsorship scandal unexpectedly, in fact fatally, undermined Paul Martin’s government.

Harper has already learned that he can weather just about any storm, withstand any barrage of criticism, that merely calls into question his government’s policy and delivery of programs—as long as its ethical probity isn’t clearly called into question. Few would have imagined beforehand, for instance, that voters would shrug off the Conservatives’ early 2009 lurch from deficits-are-unthinkable to deficits-are-unavoidable. Sustained, credible attack on big files—from the botched F-35 fighter jet procurement to the dubious handling of pipeline projects deemed vital to the national economy—hasn’t seemed to seriously threaten the government’s image as generally competent.

And this leaves Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau, along with their front-bench critics on any of the files highlighted by the AG today, with a delicate tactical problem. Obviously they can’t ignore today’s audit reports. To do so would be to abdicate on their responsibility to hold the government to account. Yet even if they manage to mount effective, pointed assaults on the subjects Ferguson examined, even if the government seems to be set back on its heels, a day or two of focus on any subject other than the convoluted tale of Sen. Mike Duffy’s expenses would surely be a relief to the Prime Minister.

To put it another way, any questions that might cause cabinet ministers to rise and credibly explain what their departments are doing to respond to the matters itemized by the AG will be better for government than those which require an answer from Harper, or, worse still, his parliamentary secretary, MP Paul Calandra. It’s a dilemma for the opposition. We’ll see what sort of balance they strike this afternoon. (As for the auditor general, he speaks to the media later this morning, and I’ll post more on his findings after we hear from him.)