The missing $3.1B no one is asking about

The Senate scandal eclipsed an auditor general report that couldn’t track billions in anti-terrorism spending
Auditor General of Canada Michael Ferguson speaks to reporters at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on Tuesday, April 30, 2013 regarding the 2013 Spring Report. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Sean Kilpatrick/CP

A few billion dollars went missing in Ottawa over a period of eight years, but after a government watchdog finally uncovered the consistently shoddy accounting, only a few weeks passed before everybody stopped asking about where the big pile of money ended up.

At stake is $3.1 billion in anti-terror funding that, according to Auditor General Michael Ferguson’s spring report, lacked any paper trail. After the terrorist attacks in September 2001, the federal government budgeted $12.9 billion of anti-terror funding across several departments. The years-long effort was known as the Public Security and Anti-Terrorism Initiative. Of that sum, the auditor general could only determine where $9.8 billion was spent. At the time, the opposition raised a stink in the House of Commons, appalled at the government’s response that the money was properly reported and accounted for. They attacked Treasury Board President Tony Clement as being managerially and fiscally incompetent. Both sides of the aisle cited Ferguson’s words in their own interests, and the argument reached a stalemate.

The opposition’s pelting lasted from the report’s release at the end of April until the spring break, when parliamentarians filed out of Ottawa for a week. When they returned to the House of Commons on May 21, nobody was talking about government expenditures. By that time, the Senate expense scandal had torn a hole in the government’s armour, forced Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin to quit the Tory caucus, and spelled the end of Nigel Wright’s reign as the prime minister’s chief of staff.

The opposition smelled blood. For months, both in the House of Commons and anywhere cameras are rolling, the NDP and Liberals have milked the Senate scandal for every soundbite. Publicly, it seems as though they’ve all but forgotten about the missing $3.1 billion.

Behind the scenes, however, the NDP is still looking for answers. Repeatedly, Clement and Prime Minister Stephen Harper have claimed the PSAT money was spent and accounted for. More recently, the NDP claims to have found evidence that the opposite is true. The party acquired documents via an access-to-information request that pointed to three sums of money, packaged as part of the PSAT initiative, still being spent today. A briefing note for Clement points to three examples of initiatives “not completed under the original timelines” that “are still ongoing.” Specifically, the memo points to $104 million to arm border guards, $129 million for National Defence Marine Security Operational Centres, and $118 million for the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority. Those are just three examples listed in the documents. The NDP worries more money is still being spent, and wants the government to come clean.

The government isn’t playing ball. “All of the funds in question are accounted for in public documents presented to Parliament, including the Public Accounts,” says Matthew Conway, a spokesman for Clement, repeating the government’s line from last spring. “There is no indication that any dollars are missing or misspent.”

Meanwhile, the opposition has been distracted by government scandal. Liberal MP John McCallum says the opposition let go of the auditor general’s revelations because, in part, no one knows how to frame the billion-dollar question. “I think the Senate expense (scandal) is more vivid, more personal,” he says. “People can get their minds around it more easily, where as Canadians don’t necessarily fully understand the difference between a billion dollars and a million dollars.”

By way of comparison, McCallum recalls the 2005 election campaign, when the Conservatives schooled the Liberals on the childcare file. “We promised childcare spaces, and it would be $5 billion over five years. And the Conservatives promised so-many dollars in everyone’s pocket for their own young children,” he says, referring to the government’s popular Universal Child Care Benefit that gave parents $100 a month to pay for childcare. “People could understand the $100 in your pocket, but $5 billion didn’t mean anything.”

Peggy Nash, the NDP’s finance critic, agreed that the so-called missing money “hasn’t really connected with Canadians,” at least not yet. There’s no whiff of corruption: the auditor general declared the funds unaccounted for, but not misspent. Instead, Nash said, her constituents in Toronto are more concerned with Senate expenses, finding childcare, and making ends meet in an expensive city.

Neither party is willing to give up on the issue. Nash said the government’s answer to ongoing questions is “very puzzling,” and the NDP will continue to push the government at committee. McCallum’s not willing to let go, either. “I don’t think this issue has got the full scrutiny it deserves,” he says. If only they knew how to make a few billion dollars matter to your average voter.