Canada’s Parliamentary system is an enduring model that assures shared accountability, a healthy Opposition, and a series of checks and balances that provide important oversight. The Office of the Auditor General, which has been conducting financial and performance audits on internal government affairs since 1867, provides important information to Canadians about government spending.
The findings of this office's audits, along with seeking out inefficiencies, help us to find examples of carelessness, abuse of power, incompetence, and/or wasteful spending. The reports produced by the Office of the Auditor General give important and independent insight into the performance of the sitting government by investigating specific issues in great detail, and in many ways the Auditor General is the taxpayers’ last line of defence against out of control bureaucratic processes and wasted taxpayer dollars.
Therefore, myself and my fellow MPs on the Public Accounts Committee have shared our urgent and serious concerns surrounding underfunding in the Auditor General’s office. This issue has been repeatedly addressed by previous Auditor General Michael Ferguson, interim Auditor General Sylvain Ricard, and now the new nominee for Auditor General of Canada Karen Hogan during her confirmation hearing this past Tuesday, May 20.
The Standing Committee on Public Accounts (which the Auditor General reports to) is a historically bi-partisan, all-party committee. In fact, a letter addressed to the Minister of Finance was signed by committee members belonging to all three parties before the 2019 election explicitly asked for more funding for the Auditor General’s office.
When asked specifically about this government’s lack of funding for the office, the 13th Auditor General nominee Ms. Hogan acknowledged “having resource constraints puts a strain on our ability to deliver our mandate to the degree that we would like to.” Later, during the same line of questioning by my colleague Pat Kelly, she revealed “we’ve had to make the difficult decision to delay some audits.”
Delaying audits? That doesn’t sound much like the Auditor General’s office operating under Harper, Martin, Mulroney, or even Trudeau the senior. In fact, this is the first government in Canadian history where the acting Auditor General has claimed their office was underfunded. It is also the first time in Canadian history that the Office of the Auditor General has had to delay, cancel, and/or decrease the number of audits conducted year over year.
The underfunding of the office is a pressing priority, but it is underscored by the added responsibility that this government has placed on the office. Now being tasked by this government to audit COVID-19 spending, the Auditor General has been given more responsibilities than ever before but with no new increase in funding. These new responsibilities include auditing the Trans Mountain Corporation and the new infrastructure bank. Once again, no new funding was allocated for any of these new projects.
This overwhelming workload creates an environment where oversight gets missed, and countless areas of interest are unexplored due to a lack of resources. Over the past several months, this government has been handing out billions of dollars in new spending in response to COVID-19. This includes an estimated 200,000 fraudulent CERB program claims, which if true would exceed $400 million per month, totaling around $1.6 billion over the life of the program.
This would be roughly enough money to properly fund the Auditor General’s operations for over a decade. Worse yet, repeated requests for more funding have been ignored by the current Finance Minister Bill Morneau. This led Karen Hogan to request a “long-term, sustainable, independent funding mechanism for our office” during our confirmation meeting on Tuesday.
Looking at all the facts available, it’s hard to ignore how this government is kneecapping the ability of this important office. Starving the Auditor General of funding while providing them with a massive workload of new responsibility at the same time, it’s becoming increasingly clear that this government wishes to avoid audits as much as possible.
The good news is that Ms. Hogan proved to myself and the all-party Public Accounts Committee during her nomination hearing that she is not only an extremely well-qualified candidate, but she is also highly motivated to streamline the Auditor General’s office to become more efficient. She plans to better utilize modern accounting software, finally transitioning the office away from the totally obsolete DOS system, invest in artificial intelligence research, and improve delivery to best utilize the resources available to her.
When I asked her about how the Auditor General’s office could use lessons learned from working remotely during COVID-19, she responded saying “Everything you’ve talked about is something we’re studying now,” referring to improving office efficiency and evaluating productivity.
I will continue to call publicly and work with my colleagues to push for the funding this office desperately needs and well deserves, because I know how important this independent office is to Canadian democracy. I am confident that with enough funding Ms. Hogan will do an excellent job at ensuring the government of the day is respecting taxpayer dollars, and that all government departments are being as effective and efficient as possible for the good of all Canadians.
Warren Steinley was elected Member of Parliament for Regina-Lewvan in October 2019, and currently sits on the Standing Committee for Public Accounts.