Tag Archives: Auditor-General of Canada

The Senate’s nut house rules


There to serve go they in that fine, superbly accountable institution of new-world democracy we call the Red Chamber, the Senate of Canada, a.k.a., the Nut House of the Great White North.

It lives and breathes, wheezes and fusses, as it spins a cocoon for its members – duly appointed by successive Liberal and Conservative enclaves of power – to dutifully inhabit. From there, these silk worms of privilege execute their light tasks, pocketing, for their devotion to their elected patrons, all the ducats they can horde, and then some.

Fresh from two years of gazing at the navels of broadly embattled former Tory Senators Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin (who were, incidentally, journalists in previous incarnations), the nation’s auditor general, Mike Ferguson, has apparently decided that the whole institution is, in effect, ethically bankrupt.

According to a report from the CBC, whose Chris Hall broke the story last week, “The three most powerful figures in the Senate are among those flagged by the auditor general to repay inappropriate expenses. Senate Speaker Leo Housakos, government leader Claude Carignan and Opposition leader James Cowan have confirmed they are among 21 senators who have been found to have filed ineligible expenses.”

What’s more, “Another nine senators were found to have ‘big problems’ with ineligible expenses and their cases will be referred to the RCMP for criminal investigation following the auditor general’s exhaustive two-year review.

“CBC News has learned that 50 copies of the auditor general’s report will be handed over to the Senate as well as to the Prime Minister’s Office. The report won’t be made public until (June 9), giving staff the weekend (June 6-7) to craft talking points in response to the auditor’s potentially damaging findings.

“Housakos and Cowan are vowing to fight the auditor general’s conclusions on their expenses. Carignan said the auditor’s findings in his case related to expenses by one of his staff, who has already reimbursed about $3,000. But multiple sources tell CBC News the revelation that the current leadership are among those with inappropriate spending has left other senators fuming.”

No kidding. Still, Canadians should be fuming about more than potential and alleged indiscretions and improprieties in the paper chase that has become the Canadian Senate. They should be outraged by the fact that a fundamental institution in this democracy can so easily resemble a cheap grift; a lazy, long-term con job at taxpayers’ unexpected expense and unwitting sufferance.

Then again, to what and to whom should they direct their opprobrium?

Is it to individual senators who, reason supposes, possess IQs above room temperature and so, logic dictates, would have sought, on their own, the path that was least likely to sever their Achilles heels in oh-so-public a manner?

Is it to the Red Room’s managers, legal interpreters and insouciant administrators who have managed to provide only stunningly poor advice on what, and what does not, constitute a legitimate expense claim?

Is it to senior bureaucrats who have, in their predictably unseemly way, bullied and arm-wrestled senators for votes on politically expedient issues?

Or, is it to generations of prime ministers who have used the Upper Chamber as their political bull pen?

In fact, if I didn’t know better, I’d propose that the Upper Chamber simply doesn’t possess the practical cunning and rude brainpower to successfully and deliberately defraud Canadians of their nickels and dimes, dollars and cents.

I might even suggest that those particular talents express themselves, most efficaciously, in an entirely separate Nut House of our parliamentary democracy.

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Courting the world as the homefront crumbles


Say what you will about the federal Conservative government’s evolving conception of international affairs, at least it has one. Far less clear are its notions about more humdrum, though no less crucial, matters of domestic tranquility.

News reports earlier this week confirmed that Prime Minister Stephen Harper will roll out an entirely new approach to foreign policy – one that makes something called “economic diplomacy” the centerpiece of his government’s efforts overseas.

In fact, this Global Markets Action Plan is merely a refurbished version of the Global Commerce Strategy, established in 2007 to, according to a government website, “respond to changes in the global economy and position Canada for long-term prosperity. . .(in). . .13 priority markets around the world where Canadian opportunities and interests had the greatest potential for growth.”

Wednesday’s edition of The Globe and Mail quotes selectively from the new plan, which directs federal officials, including senior members of the Tory caucus, to “entrench the concept of ‘economic diplomacy’ as the driving force behind the Government of Canada’s activities through its international diplomatic network.”

Indeed, deploying the trenchant language of public service memo writers in times of war, the report insists that “all diplomatic assets of the Government of Canada will be marshalled on behalf of the private sector.”

For those who cling to the idea that non-commercial interests – such as humanitarian assistance, poverty reduction, human rights, health and safety, and education – should guide Canada’s foreign policy and that multilateral collaboration is the only effective instrument with which to pursue these objectives, the shift in thinking at Foreign Affairs is a disaster.

For those who believe, however, that expanding the reach of the country’s businesses, particularly the small and medium-sized ones, is the most productive way to inculcate Canadian values and make the world safe for our particular brand of capitalist democracy (which may just be one of the more transparent oxymorons in the contemporary lexicon), economic diplomacy is a triumph of pragmatism.

Still, regardless of one’s opinion of the plan, we can all agree on at least one thing: it’s a real platform from which to tell the world that Canada is open for business. Then again, how are we doing on the homefront?

No less an authority than Canada’s Auditor-General, Michael Ferguson, worries about that kind of thing every day. His latest report, out this week, unwittingly raises troubling counterpoints to the ones our new economic diplomats proudly propagate. To wit: We may be ready to take the world by storm, but can we fix what’s broken in our own backyard?

On everything from food and transportation safety to border security, Mr. Ferguson finds the current office holders in Ottawa severely lacking in vision.

On food, the A-G report, declared, “There are weaknesses in the Canada Food Inspection Agency’s (CIFA) follow-up activities after a product has been removed from the marketplace. The CFIA did not have the documentation it is required to collect to verify that recalling firms had appropriately disposed of recalled products or taken timely actions to identify and correct the underlying cause of the recall to reduce the likelihood of a food safety issue reoccurring.”

About rail safety, the audit observed, “Despite the fact that federal railways were required 12 years ago to implement safety management systems for managing their safety risks and complying with safety requirements, Transport Canada has yet to establish an audit approach that provides a minimum level of assurance that federal railways have done so. While it has done a few audits of those systems, most of the audits it did were too narrowly focused and provided assurance on only a few aspects of SMSs. At the rate at which the Department is conducting focused audits, it will take many years to audit all the key components of SMS regulations, including key safety systems of each of the 31 federal railways.”

As for border security, Mr. Ferguson said simply that “systems and practices for collecting, monitoring, and assessing information to prevent the illegal entry of people into Canada are often not working as intended. As a result, some people who pose a risk to Canadians’ safety and security have succeeded in entering the country illegally.”

It’s all very well to court the world’s commercial movers and shakers.

But what, one wonders, will they find should they ever return the favour and put down stakes in our own home and native land?

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Seeking sanity on Senate shenanigans

As the ranks of auditors scurrying up and down Parliament Hill continue to swell, the Senate expense debacle is beginning to resemble a poorly written episode of a prime-time police procedural. Call it: CSI Ottawa.

First, there was the review board of the Upper Chamber’s internal economy committee. Then came the Senate Ethics Office, followed by the country’s Ethics Commissioner, followed by the RCMP.

Now, the Conservative Leader of the appointed body, Marjory LeBreton, wants Auditor General Michael Ferguson to conduct what she calls a “comprehensive” investigation of all expenses she and her compatriots have incurred and claimed over the past few months, possibly years.

Good idea, says Senate Opposition Leader James Cowan (a Liberal from Halifax), but why stop there? What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, if the gander happens to be the perpetually honking House of Commons.

Or, as he told CBC News last week, “Is this just another attempt to change the channel here? The problem isn’t the rules and policies. The problem is in the people who want to scam the system.”

Mounting evidence suggests that a sizable chunk of his fellow citizens concurs.

A CTV News Ipsos Reid poll, conducted late last month, found the personal accountability – not byzantine or antiquated regulations – is the real issue among the great unwashed of this country. That’s bad news for Sen. Mike Duffy, who used a personal gift of $90,000 from the PMO’s former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, to bay back what he owed. And it’s bad news for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, himself.

According to the survey, only 13 per cent of citizens firmly believed Mr. Harper’s contention that he did not know about the donation at the time it was made. Forty-two per cent were certain he was in the loop. Forty-four per cent weren’t sure.

The poll also found most Canadians clamoring for an independent investigation led by either the RCMP or a jurist (shades of the Gomery Inquiry, which sealed the fate of the once-mighty Liberal hegemony begin to haunt).

If such an inquiry should uncover expense gerrymandering, either deliberate or unintentional, 77 per cent thought those involved should relinquish their Senatorial offices forthwith.

As for the fate of the Red Chamber, itself, a convincing 88 per cent were, more or less, evenly divided: 45 per cent said it should be reformed; 43 per cent said it should be abolished. A marginal 13 per cent voted for the status quo.

There’s no reason to question the validity of these findings, which is why there is every reason to, as Ms. LeBreton suggests, enlist the unimpeachable authority of the Auditor-General’s office (and no others) to get to the bottom of this, and more.

Open wide all the books. Shed a torchlight into every nook and cranny of this increasingly dubious institution. Then, when done, cast a critical eye at the Commons. How are Canada’s elected representatives handling their responsibilities to taxpayers? Shouldn’t “reform” be an equal opportunity exigency in the nation’s public realm?

Before there can be true accountability, there must be clarity. When Canadians know the dimensions of the problems that afflict their most important democratic instruments, they will be equipped to demand the changes that are necessary to safeguard their trust in the political system.

“When I say a comprehensive audit of all Senate expenses, I mean just that,” Ms. LeBreton insisted on CTV’s Power Play earlier this week. “Every tax payer dollar that’s spent to the functioning of the Senate all of it. . .The public saw the Senate as a closed club, investigating itself. I came to realize that we really had to respect what the public was saying and turn it over to a body that is absolutely, without question, has a lot integrity and a lot credibility and actually assure the public that we are serious about tax payer dollars.”

It’s time the Senate’s Keystone Kops make room for CSI’s Horatio Caine.

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