By Aaron Wherry - Thursday, May 9, 2013 - 0 Comments
The Auditor General appeared at the Public Accounts committee last week to testify about his latest report. Conservative MP Andrew Saxton asked him directly about the $3.1 billion.
Andrew Saxton: Some people have been claiming that the government lost $3 billion. Is this an accurate portrayal of your report?
Michael Ferguson: What we reported in the chapter on spending on public security and anti-terrorism initiative was that there was $12.9-billion worth of budget allocations to some 35 departments and agencies. When we looked at the reports that agencies made to Treasury Board Secretariat about their spending under these initiatives, it totalled $9.8 billion, so a difference of roughly $3 billion that we tried to get an explanation for why there’s that difference between the budget and the actual, and we were not able to get that explanation. So what we were trying to do was understand what that difference was and where it came from. That’s how I would characterize what that report included.
Andrew Saxton: Thank you. Now, can you please tell me if the reports that were done by the public security and anti-terrorism initiative, or more commonly known as PSAT, if the PSAT reports were for internal government use or for external use?
Michael Ferguson: My understanding is that the reports were given to Treasury Board Secretariat as part of Treasury Board Secretariat’s role in monitoring these initiatives, and we expected that they would then be used as a summary reporting tool to Treasury Board itself. So all of that is internal reporting. There was never a summary report prepared for Treasury Board, however.
Andrew Saxton: During this period of time, did individual departments report their normal planned spending and actual spending to Parliament?
Michael Ferguson: Certainly there’s the normal process whereby departments report their budgets and actuals across all of their activities, and that goes on every year.
Later, Liberal MP Gerry Byrne asked for clarification.
Gerry Byrne: I have a quick question on chapter 8. Could you help clear up some confusion that I think exists in many people’s minds? If the government can’t readily identify specifics of what $3.1 billion was spent on, how can Parliament be confident it was spent properly and within statutory and policy guidelines?
Michael Ferguson: What we were looking for—Again, this was a very large initiative. This was a horizontal initiative. It included a lot of departments. It had specific identified objectives, things that were trying to be achieved. Also there was this mechanism put in place for Treasury Board Secretariat to collect information that could be used for monitoring purposes. We felt that would have been the important information to produce summary level data about what was spent, what was it spent on, and what was achieved. That wasn’t done so there’s no overall summary picture that can go forward to anybody. Now in general, of course, any dollar that goes out of the federal government’s bank account is subject to all of the controls in place in those departments. But that doesn’t mean that it’s captured in a way that it can reported against this type of initiative.
Gerry Byrne: Understood. Thanks. In this context, we had a situation not long ago where there was abuse of parliamentary authority. Parliament had voted and authorized certain expenditures for the Canada Border Infrastructure Fund . We later found out that it was spent on gazeboes, 200 kilometres away from the border. Is there a risk that some of the $3.1 billion may not have necessarily been spent on what Parliament had approved it for?
Michael Ferguson: Certainly the first part of trying to answer that question is to look at what the budget appropriation was, what was spent, and then trying to analyze that difference. The one thing that was occurring in this case was that there was this process for reallocation, and they were tracking when RIA allocations happened. There’s just nothing captured in terms of the total amount of the reallocations. What’s hard to say is how much of that difference was things that we just now spent, how much of it were things that were reallocated and went through the proper process to be reallocated. It’s not possible based on the information we have to answer the question of whether anything was spent on things outside of these initiatives.
Gerry Byrne: Mr. Auditor General, you would suggest to the committee that there is a risk, then?
Michael Ferguson: I guess I would have to say that there would be a risk because there is not enough information to answer the question completely.
For further information there is what Scott Clark and Peter DeVries, two former finance officials, wrote about the Auditor General’s report.
By Aaron Wherry - Monday, April 29, 2013 at 11:45 AM - 0 Comments
The House is taking an hour this morning to debate Thomas Mulcair’s bill to amend the Parliamentary Budget Officer’s mandate. I asked Kevin Page about the bill in March.
Q: Tom Mulcair’s private member’s bill before the House to change the mandate for the PBO, do you think it goes far enough?
A: It would. It would go very far, in terms of correcting the problem that we’re experiencing right now. And I think what we’re seeing playing out right now is really just a problem of the legislation, which was not properly established. I was appointed by the Prime Minister, I work for this Prime Minister as a public servant. And I work at pleasure. Who really wants to work at pleasure? They would be more comfortable being dismissed by cause. And when you take a job and you’re appointed by a prime minister and you’re the watchdog of the finances of the prime minister’s government, at the get go, with the opposition, there’s not going to be trust. You can clean these things up and I think the private member’s bill starts to look at those issues.
So it would help and I think the issue of independence—I think there’s a lot of confusion about independence. For us, it’s not about being better or different, it’s really that we want people to know that this is our view. That’s why it’s so important for us, just like you, you put your name on your work, we put our names, individual authors, put their names on their work, people that peer review the papers put their names on their work. We want people to know this is our work and we want them to have a different data point. And so, within the library model, which is where we’re situated, that’s just not congruent. They need to provide confidential services to members of parliament who are looking at private member’s bills, policy development. Whereas I think in our model, people need to know that this is our work and so it’s very different business model. So I think the future’s not sustainable for us to be in a world where you have the parliamentary budget officer, I have this responsibility to the legislature for this mandate, but administratively I report through the librarian. So the librarian could say, you know, I don’t want you to have a website, I don’t want you to hire these people, I’m not signing off on that contract. And all of a sudden your independence is no longer there. And whereas I think for the five years, people have a strong sense that the work that we provided was our view, a PBO view. And that I would be held as responsible and I was also willing to be accountable for that work.
Q: Does it go far enough on the demand or the ability of the PBO to demand documentation from the government side?
A: There are different models in different countries that have much stronger access provisions. To me, it’s two things. There’s the force of legislation and the culture. If we don’t change the culture in this town right now, which is complete secrecy—nothing up on websites, sorry can’t talk to you—if we don’t change the culture to be more analytical, more open and transparent, we have a really big problem.
Stronger legislation helps. So if it’s clear that we’re operating within our sandbox, within the mandate and we ask for information, it should come. Over the last five years, we’ve used weak legislation, but we’ve done it in a very transparent way. So you know, Canadians know, members of parliament know, when we’re working on a project, I will write a letter to the deputy and it will say, we’re working on behalf of taxpayers, on behalf of these members of parliament, it’s within our mandate, here’s what we need to do our job. We’ll get a response back and that all gets posted on the website. So in the meantime, while we don’t have stronger legislation, we find the way to work in this environment is with complete transparency.
The Liberals, through a speech by Stephane Dion, say they will support Mr. Mulcair’s bill, but the government side, through a speech by Andrew Saxton, says it won’t support the bill on account of the additional costs it might impose—the Speaker has suggested it might require a royal recommendation—and because, in the government’s estimation, the current situation is apparently satisfactory. As a result, passing the bill at second reading would seem to require the support of a number of Conservative backbenchers.
By Aaron Wherry - Friday, February 8, 2013 at 12:37 PM - 0 Comments
Mr. Speaker, I thank the hon. member for her speech about the Parliamentary Budget Officer. Of course, she recognizes that in our Parliament, which is the Westminster system that we have inherited from the United Kingdom, it is the Crown that is responsible for making budgets, not Parliament. Parliament approves budgets that come from the Crown. I wonder if she would like to comment on that role. She seems to be saying in her remarks that the opposition members, individually, should have their fingerprints all over the budget, creating a system of what are called earmarks in the United States. Does she believe that it is an appropriate format for making budgets? I would like to comment on another aspect and add a secondary question. To what extent are opposition members using the Parliamentary Budget Officer role for partisan purposes, as opposed to trying to clarify and use it for information?
As I also mentioned, for 48 years the Library of Parliament has served members of Parliament. Its employees did not grandstand or hold regular press conferences; they simply did their job and served Parliament. That is what the Library of Parliament has done in the past and that is what we expect the Library of Parliament and the Parliamentary Budget Officer to do in the future.
Mr. Speaker, I guess it really boils to what is need for making this position an officer of Parliament? Under the position’s current mandate, the Parliamentary Budget Officer is to provide independent analysis to Parliament on the state of the nation’s finances, government estimates and trends in the Canadian economy. The role is not designed to be an independent watchdog. It is not designed to be an auditor general, chief electoral officer, privacy commissioner or access to information commissioner. All of those are independent officers, but that is not what this role was designed to be. The PBO is functioning perfectly well within the Library of Parliament, and that is where it belongs.
Mr. Speaker, I recall being on the Library of Parliament committee as my first committee when I was elected in 2008. We studied the issue of the Parliamentary Budget Officer. All the witnesses who were part of that process said that the Parliamentary Budget Officer clearly overstepped the responsibility of the role in the way they had envisioned it. I recall a point when the Parliamentary Budget Officer spoke out on a very specific issue during an election. I would like the member’s impression of it and whether he thinks it was unprecedented and, for that matter, appropriate.
The role of the Parliamentary Budget Officer is simple. It is to provide non-partisan information so that MPs can be watchdogs. It is not that the PBO is to be a watchdog of the government. That is what the opposition members want to transform the PBO into, and that is a dangerous road to go down because it could lead the PBO to being subject to legitimate criticisms of partisanship. It is to equip members of Parliament, unless the opposition members believe they are no longer effective watchdogs of the government. Maybe that is why they want to change this role.
Mr. Saxton’s comments are interesting in their blatant criticism of Kevin Page’s term.
The watchdog distinction is also an interesting point. The opposition parties want to make the Parliamentary Budget Officer to be an independent officer of Parliament. Would Mr. Watson consider the auditor general a watchdog? Would the auditor general thus be subject to “legitimate criticisms of partisanship?”
Mr. Holder seems to be hinting at the release of the Afghanistan audit in 2008—we reviewed that particular moment last week.
By Mitchel Raphael - Wednesday, January 30, 2013 at 10:16 PM - 0 Comments
Mitchel Raphael takes in the Speaker’s second annual celebration of the Scottish bard
Speaker Andrew Scheer hosted his second a Robbie Burns dinner on Wednesday evening on Parliament Hill.
By Aaron Wherry - Friday, September 21, 2012 at 2:59 PM - 0 Comments
Among the Conservaties who stood in the House this week and criticized the NDP’s stance on cap-and-trade were Kyle Seeback, Peter Van Loan, Gord Brown, Leon Benoit, Shelly Glover, Chris Warkentin, LaVar Payne, Gerry Ritz, Pierre Poilievre, Christian Paradis, Rick Dykstra, Randy Hoback, Pierre Lemieux, Ed Fast, Tony Clement and Andrew Saxton. These individuals—like Phil McColeman, Joe Preston and Ed Holder, who attacked the NDP last week—were all Conservative candidates in 2008 when the Conservative party platform included a commitment to pursue a continental cap-and-trade system.
Here, again, is everything you need to know about the Conservatives’ carbon tax farce.
By Aaron Wherry - Monday, September 17, 2012 at 7:25 PM - 0 Comments
The Scene. John Baird pointed at Thomas Mulcair and laughed.
Conservative MP Andrew Saxton was on his feet a couple rows back, claiming that the leader of the opposition had spent the summer promoting the idea of a tax on carbon. Mr. Baird apparently thought this was funny. Mr. Saxton had been preceded by Shelly Glover. And Mr. Saxton and Ms. Glover would be followed by Conservative MP John Williamson, all rising in the moments before Question Period to recite their assigned talking points.
Peter Van Loan had accused Mr. Mulcair of favouring a carbon tax this morning at a news conference to mark the start of the fall sitting. Two hours later, the Conservative party press office had then issued a “fact check” repeating the claim. Veteran Affairs Minister Steven Blaney posted the talking point to Facebook. Tim Uppal, the minister of state for democratic reform, tweeted it. Minister of International Co-operation Julian Fantino tweeted it too.
Last week it was Conservative MPs Phil McColeman, Susan Truppe, Joe Preston and Ed Holder. The week before that it was Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver. Back in June, the Conservatives launched television attack ads that repeated the claim.
By Aaron Wherry - Tuesday, June 26, 2012 at 9:45 AM - 0 Comments
It is probably worth noting that, while the government operations committee has recommended further study of whether or not to make the Parliamentary Budget Officer a full officer of Parliament, a private member’s bill that would make that change already exists: C-381, tabled last December by Peggy Nash. That bill was actually first tabled by Paul Dewar in 2010 and, while it never came up for a vote, the Conservatives said they supported passing the bill at second reading so it could be studied at committee.
Indeed, when Mr. Dewar’s bill was debated, Conservative MP Andrew Saxton actually expressed a great deal of pride in the existence and admiration for the work of the PBO.
I would also remind the members of this House that it was this government that established the office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer in the first place. It was a key element in the Federal Accountability Act, which demonstrated our commitment to accountable government. In fact, strengthening accountability and increasing transparency in our public institutions has been one of the hallmarks of this government. We promised during our campaign to improve government accountability. And when we took power, that is exactly what we did…
By Aaron Wherry - Tuesday, May 29, 2012 at 9:30 AM - 0 Comments
The work of the parliamentary committee studying the F-35 procurement is apparently done. At least so far as the Conservative members of the committee are concerned. Here was Conservative MP Andrew Saxton’s explanation yesterday.
Mr. Speaker, we have heard from the Auditor General three times: once for the report as a whole, once for the beginning of the chapter, and once at the end of the chapter. We have heard from senior government officials at two different sets of meetings that detailed the government’s response. We have heard from the Parliamentary Budget Officer to compare his numbers versus others. The purpose of the committee is to study the Auditor General’s report. We have done that. Let us get on with writing the report.
The public accounts committee met five times to consider the auditor general’s findings, though the first of those meetings was consumed by debating how to proceed with a study. David Pugliese suggests defence officials aren’t pleased with the latest turn of events.
At DND the talk is that the Conservatives have given the opposition MPs another PR windfall on the F-35 file. There has been widespread disbelief that the poor communications strategy has allowed the purchase to become a major political issue. This latest move will not help the situation at all, say NDHQ insiders.
By Aaron Wherry - Thursday, April 19, 2012 at 5:59 PM - 0 Comments
Shortly after 2 p.m., David Christopherson, the fussiest New Democrat, called to order this emergency meeting of the standing committee on public accounts. Around the table sat seven Conservatives, four New Democrats (only three of whom were officially participating in the proceedings) and one Liberal.
Mr. Christopherson proceeded to read aloud the specific standing order of Parliament—106(4) for those of you scoring at home—that allows for four members of any committee to request an emergency meeting of that committee, as had occurred in this case. He asked to make sure that everyone in attendance was in agreement that this is what had happened. There was unanimous agreement—or at least no one audibly objected—and so Mr. Christopherson moved on to explain that there were two motions before the committee.
Here is approximately where the trouble started. Or rather where this place’s latest testament to the vitality of our democracy began. Continue…
By Aaron Wherry - Wednesday, April 11, 2012 at 9:30 AM - 0 Comments
Liberal MP Gerry Byrne alleges Conservative MP Andrew Saxton is trying to ensure senior departmental officials don’t testify during committee hearings into the Auditor General’s F-35 findings.
“His motion is for one purpose and one purpose only, it’s to stop the witness list that I’ve proposed from being called and it’s to ensure that basically only the ministers will get called and they can run roughshod with the truth as they see fit,” Mr. Byrne told The Hill Times after Mr. MacKay explained the government’s position following a scathing report on the F-35 from Auditor-General Michael Ferguson…
Mr. Byrne said Mr. Saxton made it clear during an in-camera discussion of his motion after Mr. Ferguson appeared at the committee that the government will allow only the main Cabinet ministers involved—Mr. MacKay, Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose (Edmonton-Spruce Grove, Alta.,), Associate Defence Minister Julian Fantino (Vaughan, Ont.) and Industry Minister Christian Paradis (Mégantic-L’Éerable, Que.)—to show up and testify.
When Tony Clement and John Baird testified about the G8 Legacy Fund last November, they brought four officials with them.
Update 12:20pm. Responding to the Hill Times story, the Prime Minister’s Office dismisses Mr. Byrne’s version.
The chief spokesperson for Prime Minister Stephen Harper (Calgary Southwest, Alta.) said the government does not want to restrict the committee witness list for hearings on the F-35 report and called Mr. Byrne’s allegation and The Hill Times’ story “100 per cent incorrect.”
“At no time was Saxton calling ministers. That is a complete fabrication from Byrne. Had you bothered to ask, you would have learned that the government plans on welcoming officials to testify at committee,” Andrew MacDougall, Mr. Harper’s communications director, said late last night in an email to The Hill Times. “At any rate, you needn’t have relied on Mr. Byrne to speak to the government’s plans. Mr. Saxton’s motion was public for all to see.”
By Aaron Wherry - Tuesday, September 15, 2009 at 6:15 PM - 61 Comments
The Scene. Having not had the opportunity a day earlier to add his unique voice to the discussion, Conservative Gord Brown stood a few minutes before Question Period with a bulletin.
“Mr. Speaker, throughout my great riding of Leeds-Grenville there are shovels in the ground, there are roads, sewers and other infrastructure works being built and repaired and folks are looking forward to the future. Everywhere I travelled in my riding this summer the people told me they are pleased with the direction our government has taken to help position Canada to face tomorrow,” he reported. “My constituents have one message: ‘Remain focused on the economy and do not have an expensive and unnecessary election.’ ”
No doubt. Our last exercise in electoral representation cost the national treasury some $280 million. Even with a drop in the price of oil, another one might add approximately the same to our already overdrawn account.
Mind you, that surely pales in comparison to the cost of sending several dozen men and women to Ottawa after each election so that they might stand in their places every so often and repeat the rote partisan rhetoric of the day.
Not that one should fuss too much over the numbers. For who among us, really, can put a price on precious democracy?
By Aaron Wherry - Friday, May 15, 2009 at 2:57 PM - 62 Comments
Excluding those born outside Canada, the following Conservative MPs have lived, studied or worked outside the country.
Jim Flaherty, Lisa Raitt, Brian Jean, Russ Hiebert, Jason Kenney, Maurice Vellacott, Mike Allen, Ray Boughen, Barry Devolin, Garry Breitkreuz, Ed Holder, Randy Kamp, Pierre Lemieux, Ben Lobb, Phil McColeman, Cathy McLeod, Scott Reid, Greg Rickford, Andrew Saxton and John Weston.