Is it the NDP’s fault Tony Clement doesn’t know where that $3B went?

The Commons: The search for the $3.1 billion continues

Last week, Thomas Mulcair recalled, it was discovered that the Conservatives had lost track of $3.1 billion. The Auditor General, Mr. Mulcair declared, has regularly suggested that the Conservatives be more transparent. And so what, Mr. Mulcair wondered, have the Conservatives done to date to find that $3.1 billion.

Jason Kenney, leading the Conservatives this day, was unimpressed.

“Mr. Speaker, as usual,” Mr. Kenney lamented, “the question of the honourable Leader of the Opposition is not fair.”

Life, alas, is not fair. But protesting that fact tends to be counter-productive.

The Auditor General, Mr. Kenney explained, had said that the money hadn’t been used in a way in which it should not have been. Thus, it is all good.

Mr. Mulcair, mostly eschewing his notes to engage the government side directly and with the benefit of something the government seems unable to account for, was confidently unpersuaded.

“Mr. Speaker, what the Auditor General actually said was, ‘Information to explain the difference of $3.1 billion between the funding allocated and the amount reported spent was not available,’ ” Mr. Mulcair reported.  “I will get back to our question for the Conservatives. They love to snap their suspenders, claiming to be good administrators of the government purse, so let them explain to us where the missing $3.1 billion is.”

Across the way, Peter Van Loan brandished his suspenders proudly.

“Mr. Speaker, the Leader of the Opposition knows full well that nothing is missing,” Mr. Kenney ventured.

Quite right. The money is not missing, it is just that no one seems to know precisely for certain what happened to it.

“He knows,” Mr. Kenney continued, “that the Auditor General said, ‘We didn’t find anything that gave us cause for concern that money was used in any way that it should not have been.’ ”

Indeed. The Auditor General seems not to have found any cause for concern, save for the concern he raised about what he could not find.

“He knows,” Mr. Kenney concluded, “that all funds expended by the government are tabled in the public accounts in this House, and that every dollar is approved by Parliament through the estimates process. Perhaps the member needs a remedial course in public accounting.”

So there.

But so here the government side had invited an obvious rejoinder.

The questions persisted and Tony Clement now concurred with Mr. Kenney’s assurances. “He confirmed,” Mr. Clement said of the Auditor General, “at committee that the anti-terrorism fund that he was reviewing was purely an internal government reporting process and that the shortcomings, which we acknowledge, did not prevent parliamentarians or Canadians from scrutinizing spending through the estimates process and through the public accounts process. Those are the facts.”

And lest there be any doubt about the extent of the disclosure and transparency, Mr. Clement next listed the years for which the New Democrats might consult the estimates and public accounts. “Mr. Speaker, the answers to the honourable member’s questions are found in the public accounts and the estimates in the years 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005. 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009,” he offered in response to the NDP’s Lysane Blanchette-Lamothe. “Those were tabled before this chamber. They were debated by parliamentarians. Either her or her predecessors took part in those debates. It is a matter of public record and the Auditor General’s findings speak for themselves.”

And so, you might wonder, if the estimates and public accounts explain what became of that $3.1 billion, why does not someone simply consult the estimates and public accounts, put together an accounting of the fate of that $3.1 billion and release that accounting publicly? That, you might think, would seem an obvious solution.

At some point in the time it took the House to proceed through another 20 questions and 20 responses, this apparently occurred to the New Democrats. And with the 32nd question of the afternoon, Nathan Cullen thus returned to Mr. Clement’s explanation.

“Mr. Speaker, the President of the Treasury Board was up earlier today saying that spending on public security and anti-terrorism was in the documents tabled in the House from 2001 to 2010,” the NDP House leader recounted. “We went and checked all the public accounts from 2001 to 2010 and the words ‘public security and anti-terrorism’ do not appear anywhere.”

And there is the problem.

“Could the President of the Treasury Board explain why this is,” Mr. Cullen asked, “or even better still, tell Canadians where our $3.1 billion is?”

The New Democrats stood to cheer.

Like Peter MacKay two weeks ago, Mr. Clement was now in a bit of a spot.

“Mr. Speaker, the member knows, or should know, that each department, every year, must table in its public accounts each item of spending in the public accounts. That is legally obligated. That is what each department does,” Mr. Clement attempted to explain. “If the honourable member wants to play word games he can do so…”

The New Democrats laughed.

“… but the facts are there for parliamentarians,” Mr. Clement continued, now wagging his finger at the official opposition. “If his caucus members from the years from 2001 to 2009 did not ask the right questions…”

The New Democrats laughed again.

“… then that is their problem, not the problem on this side of the House.”

If there is an answer to this odd episode, this is likely not it. But if Mr. Clement feels the New Democrats have somehow failed Canadians, he is surely welcome to answer now the questions they should have asked then. Or perhaps, as has been suggested, this moment calls for something like an independent officer whose job it is to provide budgetary analysis to Parliament.