’Not acceptable’: Audits of federal government’s performance cancelled due to insufficient funding, AG tells committee

’Not acceptable’: Audits of federal government’s performance cancelled due to insufficient funding, AG tells committee
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OTTAWA — The office of the auditor general, stretched thin by additional oversight of such new Liberal government entities as the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion and the Canada Infrastructure Bank, has had to drop some of its other audits.

“Although the 2018 federal budget provided us with some new ongoing funding, we did not get any of the new funding that we requested in the 2019 federal budget,” interim Auditor General Sylvain Ricard told a House of Commons committee. “We are continuing to explore our options to ensure that we are properly funded and accountable only to Parliament. In the near term, we have no choice but to decrease the number of performance audits that we conduct.”

Outgoing auditor general Michael Ferguson had requested $10.8 million in additional funding last year so his office could accommodate an expanding mandate. But with no new money on offer in 2019, the office had to drop five audits of the government’s performance, including on cyber crime and Arctic sovereignty.

“At the risk of putting words in Mr. Ferguson’s mouth, I can tell you that had we received the $10.8 million that he requested last summer, our office would have considered ourselves to have been properly funded. We would have been able to do the work that was expected,” said Andrew Hayes, the deputy auditor general. Planned spending for the current financial year is $93.8 million, an amount that has not risen in proportion with total government spending.

The news that the oversight body had to cancel some of its work caused some consternation on the committee. David Christopherson, a veteran NDP MP, said he had never before heard an auditor general tell a parliamentary committee that the office was unable to fulfil its mandate.

“In the past when there was reduction, the AG testified to us that they could manage it within their budget and it wouldn’t affect the work that they wanted to do and felt needed to be done. The difference now is the AG is being very clear,” said Christopherson. “They are being impeded in carrying out what they want to do and feel needs to be done because their funding requests were denied. That is new.”

An $8 million funding increase in the 2018 federal budget was not enough, Hayes said, and because of the mandatory workload — now larger because of the new entities created by the current government — their only discretion was to reduce the number of performance audits. In the past, on average, the office would have conducted 25 or 26 a year, but they would now have to go down to about 14, Hayes said.

He added that the commissioner of the environment is facing a similar crunch because new government legislation has upped his oversight responsibilities to 96 entities from 26 without a funding increase.

This government already has a bit of a deficiency on the democratic front

The five performance audits cancelled this year were about combating cyber crime, protecting Canada’s North, heritage service to Canadians, training for service delivery and the government’s travel system, said Ricard. They were deemed the least important areas out of a list of planned audits, but “any audit we identify is of importance,” he said. “Facing what we’re facing, we had no choice but to reduce the level of effort and reduce the number of audits. We had no choice. We can’t do it.”

“This is the premier oversight committee of Parliament and the one thing in my opinion that we cannot stand, and I don’t care who the government is, is cutting the auditor general. That’s what autocrats do when they want to deny accountability,” Christopherson said, imploring Liberal members of the committee to bring the issue back to their own government.

“I would hope that we would begin turning the wheels necessary to undo this because, just to be political for a moment, this government already has a bit of a deficiency on the democratic front. Here is yet one more knock against the professed belief and adherence to democracy and democratic values. … I am beside myself, this is not acceptable.”

Martin Potvin, a spokesman for the Treasury Board Secretariat, said the government is committed to supporting the work of the auditor general.

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