The auditor general’s report: rail and food safety worries, and shipbuilding questions

3 things you need to know
Beef cattle in pasture beside XL Foods’ Lakeside Packers plant at Brooks, Alberta on Monday, Oct. 1st, 2012, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Larry MacDougal

Today’s report from auditor general Michael Ferguson contains a raft of intriguing findings, including confusion over how the federal government provides online services, gaps in its controls along the border, and shortcomings in how it manages of First Nations reserves that face emergencies. But three of the fall audits stand out as likely to generate the most urgent attention:

Under the shadow of Lac-Megantic. At his news conference just off Parliament Hill this morning, Ferguson was given several chances by reporters to directly his findings on rail safety to last July’s horrific rail crash in Lac-Megantic, Que. He declined to take the bait. Still, he conceded that putting together what he discovered with that tragedy is bound to “raise questions.”

Even without the recent disaster in mind, this key finding would be disconcerting: Transport Canada completed only 26 per cent of the audits it planned to do of railways over a three-year period.  As a result, the department is failing, Ferguson warned, to “provide a minimum level of assurance that federal railways have implemented adequate and effective safety management systems.” And this is no new policy challenge: he pointedly noted that the department has been trying to implement its new audit system for a dozen years.

And in the aftermath of the XL Foods beef recall. Ferguson’s audit of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s handling of major food recalls is far from all negative. In fact, he found that the agency does a good job of moving quickly to get potentially contaminated food off the shelves and out of the freezers of supermarkets. Consumers should be glad to hear it. But he also found what he calls “significant gaps” in the system.

Among other flaws, the audit found that the agency didn’t do enough to make sure companies that had been forced to recall  food later corrected, and reasonably quickly, the underlying cause of that recall.  “In terms of getting food off the shelf, they are doing a good job,” Ferguson said of the federal inspection agency. “But there are problems with the follow-up.”  Still, this audit contained notable positive findings, too, including a favourable assessment of Health Canada and the Public Health Agency support in providing independent assessment of risks in food safety investigations.

Kudos for shipbuilding but questions about budgets. Ferguson used two words the government will be delighted to hear in describing their National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy—“transparent and efficient.” That’s his assessment of the way the government selected yards in Halifax and Vancouver to build new naval and coast guard ships. But having praised the early work in getting the program underway, the AG provided lots of room for questions about the future. Most awkwardly for the Conservatives, he left little doubt that the government will be unable to deliver all the ships it has promised for the budget it has allocated.

In his news conference, Ferguson called the multibillion-dollar budgets for various ships “place holders” and “tools” rather than realistic figures that might actually be enough to build the promised ships. In other words, if the government is determined to stick to the announced budgets, it will have to settle for fewer ships than the 50 large ones and 150 smaller over 30 years, and at a cost of $50 billion, dreamed of in the 2008 Canada First Defence Strategy.