The Commons: Do you know where your $3.1 billion went?

Probably you don’t. But If you do, please let us know
President of the Treasury Board Tony Clement responds to a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, November 19, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Patrick Doyle

After some fussing from the fussy David Christopherson over the fuzzy nature of the last federal election, Nycole Turmel returned to the fore to wonder aloud about the precise location and utility of some $3.1 billion in funding originally allocated for the purposes of preventing terrorist attacks.

“Mr. Speaker, Conservatives are saying that losing track of $3.1 billion is no big deal,” she reported. “The Prime Minister says there is a lack of clarity. The President of the Treasury Board says it was the Liberals’ fault.”

Across the way, Tony Clement, the president in question, furrowed his brow and appeared confused, perhaps not quite agreeing with Ms. Turmel’s account in his regard. (Perhaps he didn’t so much blame the Liberals, as merely note their complicity.)

“However,” Ms. Turmel continued, “let me read this quote: ‘One would think there would be some element of shame regarding today’s report, but there is none whatsoever.’ That was the Prime Minister talking about the Liberal boondoggle in 2005.”

And, in the interests of consistency, that previous rush to judgment should serve as the model now.

“So,” Ms. Turmel asked, “is the Prime Minister now ready to show some contrition?”

If he was, it was not obviously conveyed in words.

“Mr. Speaker, the member suggests the Auditor General said something he did not say,” the Prime Minister ventured. “In fact, what he said on this specific issue is the following: ‘We didn’t find anything that gave us cause for concern that the money, you know, was used in any way that it should not have been.’ The issue here is certain analyses that the Auditor General would like to see presented to make sure in the future that Parliament can better understand certain spending, but all spending has been reported and accounted for and the Treasury Board has accepted the Auditor General’s recommendations.”

The section in question here is entitled, “Information on whether departments used $3.1 billion in Initiative funding was not available.”

“As we noted, the Treasury Board allocated $12.9 billion for Initiative activities, but departments and agencies reported spending only $9.8 billion,” the Auditor General writes. “We found that the Treasury Board generally restricted the way departments and agencies could use the funds, but it allowed reallocations … However, financial information on reallocations was not captured.”

So what happened to those funds?

“The Secretariat, however, worked with us to identify several possible scenarios,” the Auditor General reports. “The funding may have lapsed without being spent. It may have been spent on PSAT activities and reported as part of ongoing programs spending. It may have been carried forward and spent on programs not related to the Initiative.”

Mr. Clement says everything is accounted for in the public accounts, but it’s not clear at the moment how useful the public accounts would be for these purposes. Mr. Harper quotes the Auditor General as saying he found nothing to suggest the money was used for something it shouldn’t have been, but the Auditor General’s next two sentences were as follows: “However, you know, it’s important for there to be, you know, a way for people to understand how this money was spent and that summary reporting was not done. So, you know, it’s a matter of sort of missing that last link in putting the information all together.”

Ms. Turmel and Mr. Harper proceeded to haggle over this basic conundrum.

“Mr. Speaker,” Ms. Turmel clarified, “we are not talking about the president of the Treasury Board’s $50-million slush fund for gazebos, we are talking about $3.1 billion.”

Mr. Clement shook his head at this gratuitous reference to the G8 Legacy Fund.

There is, it should be clarified, no evidence the money was spent on gazebos. There is, likewise, no reason to believe the money was used to purchase, say, a professional baseball team. But it is also not particularly clear what became of the money. It’s not missing. It’s just that, apparently, no one can say right now precisely and exactly what happened to it. Possibly, it seems, some of it might not have even been spent.

As it is, it is a large number, complicated by matters of paperwork.

“Mr. Speaker, the President of the Treasury Board claims the missing money can be found in public accounts, but the truth is it cannot be found in public accounts,” the NDP’s Malcolm Allen charged awhile later. “It was not presented to cabinet, it never came before Parliament, and it was hidden from Canadians.”

Mr. Clement grimaced and shook his head.

“When the Liberals lost track of $1 billion, the opposition Conservatives howled with great disdain and yet the President of the Treasury Board continues to pretend that he was not at fault,” Mr. Allen ventured. “When will he admit that he has lost track of $3 billion?”

The President of the Treasury Board was unpersuaded.

“Mr. Speaker, the member opposite is absolutely incorrect,” Mr. Clement declared. “I will quote, again, from the Auditor General. Just yesterday, he said: ‘We didn’t find anything that gave us cause for concern that money was used in any way it should not have been.’ That is from the Auditor General.”

The matter, Mr. Clement explained, “relates to the categorization of expenses by the Treasury Board between 2001 and 2009.” So someone forgot to put a note on some of these funds as they were distributed.

The demonstrative Lysane Blanchette-Lamothe stood to mock. “Mr. Speaker, if I understand correctly, there is someone, somewhere, who has $3.1 billion in the wrong column of an Excel file, but do not worry, money has surely been successfully spent,” she wondered aloud. “Is that right?”

In fairness, it is probably a bit more complicated than that.

Awhile later, Alexandre Boulerice was haranguing Mr. Clement about something else entirely and, as an aside, suggested to the minister he should first “find your $3 billion.”

Mr. Clement would not let this slide. “I cannot let it slide,” he explained. “The honourable member stood up just a moment ago and joked about anti-terrorism activity.”

He now wagged his finger at the official opposition. “Those members had a chance last week to vote on a bill that would improve our ability to attack terrorism to make sure we can protect the people of Canada,” he admonished. “They voted no. That is their record.”

So perhaps, in the spirit of compromise, the New Democrats could be convinced to put aside their concerns about civil liberties in exchange for a thorough accounting of that $3.1 billion.