Must-see QP: The AG gives the Tories another bad day

Your daily dose of political theatre

Adrian Wyld/CP

Adrian Wyld/CP

Maclean’s is your home for the daily political theatre that is question period. If you’ve never watched, check out our primer. Today, QP runs from 2:15 p.m. until just past 3. We livestream and liveblog all the action.

The must-see moment

Rare is the question period that reveals a contrite prime minister. Today, a tough audit of a northern food subsidy program forced Stephen Harper to admit his government performed poorly. The response came in NDP MP Megan Leslie’s opening round.

Auditor General Michael Ferguson’s report recalled that the Nutrition North Canada program, launched in 2011, is supposed to “make healthy foods more accessible and affordable to residents of isolated northern communities.” Food is expensive in Canada’s north, far beyond any price tags most Canadians confront at a supermarket.

The subsidy aims to alleviate those costs, and specifically mandates that retailers pass along savings:

The Program specifies that retailers are responsible for passing on the full subsidy to consumers by reducing their prices on eligible foods. Retailers submit information on what was shipped and information on food prices to the Department. Payments to retailers are based on the weight of eligible foods shipped to eligible communities. About 40 retailers, suppliers, and food processors participate in the Program. Three northern retailers have accounted for about 80 percent of the subsidy each year.

Ferguson’s conclusion was that, even though retailers claim to have done their duty, there’s no evidence of that—because the government didn’t ask for it.

We concluded that the Department has not done the work necessary to verify that the northern retailers are passing on the full subsidy to consumers. The Department did not require information on profit margins, either in its contribution agreements with retailers or through its compliance reviews of retailers, which is necessary to verify that the subsidy is fully passed on to consumers.

Ferguson helpfully posted a video to explain his observations.

Harper responded with some respect for the AG’s findings (emphasis added by me).

A full recitation of the facts is a little bit different. As has been noted, there’s been about a 25 per cent increase under Nutrition North of the shipping of healthy food to the north, something we’re spending about $60 million a year on. The price of the average family food basket has dropped by about six per cent. The auditor general has noticed there needs to be better information in place to monitor performance of the program in some aspects, and the ministry has obviously accepted those recommendations.

Small concessions, maybe, but Harper is used to waving his finger with disapproval at the opposition benches. Today, he’s left not to dispute Leslie’s recounting of Ferguson’s tut-tutting, but only point out a couple of the subsidy’s happy statistics. He can only accept the recommendations, move on, and hope the House moves on with him.

The recap

The context

We were waiting for the government benches to do the same thing they do every time an auditor general eviscerates their handling of a federal program: play down the evisceration, and dismiss concerns as “administrative”; explain that the department was already working to fix whatever was broken; and insist that corrective measures are on the way. Today, Auditor General Michael Ferguson tests their mettle with a Fall report.

The problematic programs of note in the AG’s report: mental health services for veterans; a northern nutrition subsidy; loans to automakers in the middle of the 2008 financial crisis; record retention at Library and Archives Canada; the national sex-offender registry; water purifiers used in disaster relief; and military relocation.

Ministers from all over the front bench do their best damage control. Don’t expect much contrition.

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