Thu 12 Feb 2004
When Sheila Fraser, the Auditor General, speaks, the media pays attention.
Her reports and quotable press conferences feed the maw of newspaper headlines and form the top items of our national news.
And the electorate listens, often responding with outrage at her tales of excess, misspending and hints of malfeasance in the highest reaches of the Federal Government.
Her moral authority flows from the independence of her office and the inherent credibility of her profession; the foundation of which is based on accuracy and objectivity. What she investigates, what she reports and what she says has a major and direct impact on the public interest and the way we view our relationship to government, the civil service and elected leaders.
Recently, on the weekly “At Issue” panel on CBC News, I voiced a (highly unpopular and politically incorrect) concern that the audit process was running amok and Sheila Fraser was behaving more like the Leader of the Official Opposition than the accountant that she is. In short – and in my defense, I made this statement this not be inflammatory or to be pilloried by my fellow panelists but out of a life long and abiding concern about the public interest and the citizen’s deteriorating relationship with government – I felt that the matters she chose to investigate, and the moral tone of her reports and remarks, were undermining the important role her office is supposed to perform and ultimately, the public interest for which she is entrusted.
The official home page of the Auditor General’s website states that …”the people’s right to control how public funds are collected and spent is one of the cornerstones for democracy”. True enough. Equally true is that the people’s confidence and trust that public funds are being collected and spent properly and when they are not, that mechanisms are in place to expose these deficiencies, provides the glue that gives government the legitimacy to govern and makes democracy work. When the public ceases to trust government with the stewardship of public finances, the entire system breaks down. This practice of the audit and the presence of the auditor exist to ensure that trust is maintained and the system works. They tells us not just if there are problems but also provides an opinion on the compliance and governance practices of an organization – objectively and accurately.
When I made this point, my colleague, Chantal Hebert, from the Toronto Star objected and asked how I would feel if I put all my money in a shoe box, gave it to someone, asked my accountant to come in to investigate after the fact and found all my money was missing. I would be – like the public seems to be, hearing the Auditor General’s Report – outraged. But that is not what is happening in government finances.
The being discussed concerned commissions paid to advertising agencies in relation to the Federal Government’s (since abandoned) sponsorship program. The amount in question was $100 million over a four year period or approximately $25 million per year. Based on an annual operating budget of $180 billion, the amount for which “little or no value” could be found represented .015% of the tax dollar entrusted to government for that year.
To return to Chantal’s analogy, if I had deposited $100,000 in the shoe box, this would be the equivalent of being told that $15 had gone missing. Now I would have every right to want to find out where my $15 went, but rather than being outraged, my larger conclusion would be that money I had left in someone else’s trust was in pretty good hands.
This most emphatically is not the impression left by the Auditor General’s Report. The view expressed by the public and the press was that this was a scandal of epic proportions, so much so that David Dodge, the Governor of the Bank of Canada was asked earlier that day if the Auditor General’s findings would have international repercussions for Canada’s economy!
My intent here is not to defend what are indefensible practices or to be cavalier about the hard earned tax dollars of Canadians but simply to call for the Auditor General to provide some context to her findings – to give an accurate, and not hysterical, picture of how public funds are being managed.
This distortion is further compounded by the Auditor General’s persistent use of un-accountant-like language and drawing conclusions that stray from her mandate.
Again, go to AG’s website and you will find “the important principle that the Auditor General does not comment on policy choices but does examine how these policies are implemented”. This principle is important in order to ensure the independence and impartiality of the Office but also to ensure that the Auditor does not venture into territory that either undermines the role of Parliamentarians or for which she is unqualified to comment.
When Sheila Fraser offers her view that she is “deeply concerned” or “outraged” by her findings, she is coming perilously close to breaching this principle. Upon examining the operations of Privacy Commissioner she concluded that its head, George Radwanski, had conducted a “reign of terror” and “poisoned” the office culture. Well the last time I looked, Generally Accepted Accounting Principles provided no such procedures to measure terror or poison. These are personal points of view that are better expressed by those we elect to make them or by voters who can chose to support or oppose incumbent governments, without Ms. Fraser’s editorial comments and “moral essays”.
And if this was only a case of harmless semantics or rhetorical flourish it could be overlooked. But it is not. The Auditor General words have power and influence. When they are used capriciously (or even subjectively) they set the tone of debate and create an incendiary context that undermines the public’s objective understanding of the nature and magnitude on the problems at hand.
What is lost in the miasma of headlines and stories emanating from our eminently quotable AG is the acceptance that these instances are not “scandals” but routine problems that will plague any organization that employs a quarter million people and handles a fifth of a trillion dollars in tax payer’s money. Recognizing this is not to condone broken rules or misspending, or to accept less than the best government we can strive to achieve. It merely requires using a yardstick of objectivity and –yes – common sense that allows us to measure the performance of our governments in a way that reflex the huge complexity and complications, inherent in their operations.
The other fact is that our system of oversight, governance and public finance works remarkably well. The two major “scandals” that formed the focus of Fraser’s Report – the Sponsorship Commissions and the purchase of Challenger Jets – were both discovered well in advance of her current investigations. Between a vigilant and free press, a professional publics service, strengthened Parliamentary Committees and the Office of the Auditor General we are able to detect and pursue virtually all wrong doing that may occur in government. Far from reigning chaos or corruption, our government works very well.
This however is not the prevailing view held by the public, based on what they see of the Auditor General’s activities. And that serves no one’s interest and certainly not the public interest.