House of Commons Hansard #84 of the 35th Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was wildlife.

Topics

The House proceeded to the consideration of Bill C-207, an act to amend the Auditor General Act (reports), as reported (with amendment) from the committee.

Auditor General Act
Private Members' Business

June 13th, 1994 / 11 a.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mrs. Maheu)

Motion No. 1 will be debated and voted upon.

Auditor General Act
Private Members' Business

11 a.m.

Bloc

Richard Bélisle La Prairie, QC

moved:

That Bill C-207, in Clause 1, be amended by replacing line 10, on page 1, with the following:

"under section 8(1), at least three".

Auditor General Act
Private Members' Business

11 a.m.

Liberal

Don Boudria Glengarry—Prescott—Russell, ON

Madam Speaker, I am wondering whether the mover of the motion is in fact here today and, if not, whether we can address this matter. I believe a negotiation was discussed and, before making a decision about this matter, we could settle that question.

Auditor General Act
Private Members' Business

11 a.m.

Bloc

Richard Bélisle La Prairie, QC

Madam Speaker, Bill C-207, tabled for first reading on February 1, 1994 by the member for Ottawa-Vanier, provides in clause 1 that the Auditor General shall report at least annually to the House of Commons. This bill also provides, in clause 4, that the Auditor General may report to the House of Commons on a study of any matter undertaken for the purposes of this act upon completion of the study.

After second reading, the public acounts committee considered this bill. The Parliamentary Secretary to the President of the Treasury Board moved in the public accounts committee the following amendments, which were carried on division by the committee.

The Auditor General shall report annually to the House of Commons and may make, in addition to any special report made under subsection 8(1), not more than three additional reports in any year to the House of Commons. That was the main amendment moved in the public accounts committee by the parliamentary secretary.

Where the additional reports are concerned, the Auditor General shall send written notice to the Speaker of the House of Commons of the subject matter of the report the Auditor General proposes to make under subsection (1). Then, again according to an amendment moved by the parliamentary secretary, the additional report shall be submitted to the Speaker of the House of Commons on the expiration of 30 days after the notice is sent or any longer period specified in the notice.

A third amendment was also moved, to subsection 8(1), concerning the presentation of a special report. It was worded as follows:

8.(1) The Auditor General may make a special report to the House of Commons on any matter of pressing importance or urgency that, in the opinion of the Auditor General, should be reported immediately.

That clause 3 was replaced by the following:

8.(1) The Auditor General may make a special report to the House of Commons on any matter of pressing importance or urgency that, in the opinion of the Auditor General, should not be deferred until the presentation of the next report under subsection 7(1).

This amendment was moved in the public accounts committee by the parliamentary secretary.

Since the present act, which is 17 years old, has existed, subsection 8(1) concerning special reports has never been used by an Auditor General.

As well, in his testimony before the public accounts committee on May 26, 1994, the Auditor General stated: "An amendment to allow the office to table, say, four times a year would enable me to do what I would intend to do anyway. There are few issues that cannot wait a month or two for reporting, and in those cases there is always subsection 8(1) of the current act for use in real emergencies". In fact, that section has never been used in the 17 years of the acts existence.

Why not simplify this entire system, as proposed in the amendment by the Parliamentary Secretary to the President of the Treasury Board, and add to the annual report, which will continue to be tabled, the possibility of not more than three additional reports?

I have already stated in the House that the request by the member for Ottawa-Vanier during Question Period on January 20, 1994 to allow the Auditor General to increase the frequency of that person's reports was the 16th such request since July 1980; there has been a 17th in the meantime. It is time that we took action on this bill.

The federal debt, combined with that of the provinces, has now reached the critical level of 91 per cent of Canada's GDP. Furthermore, according to economist John Richards, the author of a study published by the C. D. Howe Institute, the measures announced by the Liberal government to reduce the deficit will probably fail. In Mr. Richards' opinion, it is highly probable that the present program to fight the deficit will not even achieve the most modest objectives contained in the Liberals' red book.

In the present situation of indebtedness, since we have reached a critical point and have a program to fight the deficit that is worse than shaky, why not give the Auditor General more elbow room and promote a more flexible and workable way for that person to publish work and take action?

Why put the number of reports by the Auditor General in a strait-jacket of one annual report, to which in the long term no more than three additional reports would be added?

In order to give the Auditor General more room to manoeuvre and more latitude to take action, I move the amendment tabled this morning, that is:

That clause 1 of Bill C-207 be amended by striking out lines 4 to 11 on page 1 and substituting the following therefor: The Auditor General shall report annually to the House of Commons and may make, in addition to any special report made under subsection 8(1), at least three additional reports in any year to the House of Commons.

By means of this amendment, the Auditor General could publish at least three additional reports, indeed four, five, or even more. The Auditor General could still publish the annual report, to which could be added three or more additional reports, depending on the situation.

This amendment would avoid pointless and tedious proceedings to amend the act two or three years from now to allow for more additional reports, if the Auditor General considered that appropriate, and would be in the spirit of the initial bill tabled by the member for Ottawa-Vanier, which did not put a ceiling on the number of reports by the Auditor General.

That member's bill specifies only a minimum of reports each year; the amendment moved by the parliamentary secretary puts a ceiling of three additional reports in addition to the annual report; and the amendment I am moving today is in agreement with the bill tabled by the member for Ottawa-Vanier: a minimum of three additional reports, and thus a broader base, in addition to the annual report, which would still be published.

Auditor General Act
Private Members' Business

11:15 a.m.

Liberal

Jean-Robert Gauthier Ottawa—Vanier, ON

Madam Speaker, I am going to comment very briefly on this amendment requiring the Auditor General of Canada to report at least three times in addition to his annual report.

We considered such a provision when the bill was drafted, and we rejected it at that time because, in my opinion, the Auditor General should be left free to act. It should be his decision when to table a report. There should not be a minimum of three reports imposed on him.

What will happen if, for completely extra-parliamentary reasons, for factors entirely outside his activities as auditor, an election is called? It is easy to see that it would be impossible for him to table the three minimum reports plus an annual report in that year. I am puzzled that the Bloc Québécois is absolutely determined to impose three additional reports on the Auditor General, over and above his annual report.

The original idea behind Bill C-207 was to make possible greater transparency, greater freedom of action, and, what is more, greater accountability to the people of Canada with respect to the public accounts that are approved by this House.

I do not see why the Auditor General should be forced to prepare a minimum of three additional reports. I would have preferred that we stick to the original bill, which left him the freedom to decide when, how and why he would report, and did not impose a minimum of three extra reports.

I cannot support this amendment.

Auditor General Act
Private Members' Business

11:15 a.m.

Bloc

Gilbert Fillion Chicoutimi, QC

Madam Speaker, I support the amendment of the hon. member for La Prairie to Bill C-207, under which clause 1 of the bill would be amended to enable the Auditor General to make at least three supplementary reports a year.

By allowing the Auditor General to report more than once a year we would be giving him greater latitude, and that is something we heartily support. The wording of the amendment sets a minimum.

It is not restrictive. It says the Auditor General will be able to present at least three supplementary reports. He could present more than that, but there will be a floor. I do not think it would be wise to introduce this kind of change and set a limit on the number of supplementary reports.

The Auditor General's strength is his credibility. Giving him latitude is also giving him the room to carry out his mandate fully.

Changing from one report a year to several is a response to a long felt need. The proposed amendment to section 7 of the Auditor General Act has been recommended four times by the public accounts committee and once by the Senate finance committee. The Auditor General would like to see this change.

With reports at regular intervals, information will be split up and will reach us in a shorter time, which will obviously result in savings.

The Auditor General will be able to report to the House of Commons as soon as he has finished an in-depth audit of a department or a federal body, instead of waiting until he tables his annual report. Parliamentarians will thus be able to have access to information faster, and act more promptly.

The amendment gives plenty of leeway, and the necessary flexibility, to the Auditor General. Why opt for a ceiling? Where does this distrust come from? Why give with the right hand and take away with the left?

If it is felt that the Auditor General needs to produce more than one annual report a year, which seems to be an accepted fact, why restrict him to producing no more than three additional reports?

Moreover, the idea of regular reports reflects a trend that we can see in other countries: Great Britain, Germany, Sweden, Australia, New Zealand. They have all adopted the idea. We are not abandoning a sacrosanct standard and striking out on our own.

The Auditor General's 1993 annual report has over 700 pages. If he reported at regular intervals all the information would be brought out over the course of a year and not just at the end of the year. That would be more efficient, more effective and more transparent. His auditing activities show how public money is being used, which meets a vital need. There can be no half measures in transparency.

Everyone is in favour of virtue, but when the time comes to act they get lukewarm and propose to limit the number of supplementary reports. This is backing and filling. Since 1980 there have been many attempts to amend the Auditor General Act but none of them has succeeded.

It seems to be difficult to go from words to action and give the Auditor General the latitude he needs. We are clearly running into resistance here. Apparent supporters of the idea say one thing but make a point of setting limits to what they call transparency. There is no room here for petty politicking. The Auditor General is the government's watchdog, and he must not be muzzled.

The Bloc Québécois defines the Auditor General's role positively. There is no question of imposing limits on him: we want to give him the manoeuvring room he needs to carry on his activities.

The bill tabled by the hon. member for Ottawa-Vanier originally provided in its clause 1 that the Auditor General could table at least one report, whereas the text we now have before us stipulates that he can prepare not more than three supplementary reports a year. Limits are being introduced, things are being restricted. After they make their resounding statements of principle, put the Grits through the mangle and their real intentions gush out.

The Auditor General ensures probity in the management of public moneys. He is apolitical. In today's context, participating in the passage of measures that might make it possible to save money is not something to dismiss lightly.

The Office of the Auditor General does audits, and we would benefit from having the findings in a shorter time. The wording of the amendment is designed to achieve this by providing for additional reports. The Auditor General already has the power to make special reports to the House.

Section 8(1) reads as follows:

The Auditor General may make a special report to the House of Commons on any matter of pressing importance or urgency that, in his opinion, should not be deferred until the presentation of his annual report.

However, since 1977, he has never invoked that section. The member for Ottawa-Vanier wanted to soften the original rule. In its place, he proposes the present wording which sets requirements too high, so high in fact that one wonders if they will ever be satisfied since the auditor has never used this prerogative in 17 years.

We submit that the requirements of managing a modern state call for a new way of doing things which allows for greater visibility. The auditor needs more leeway in the performance of his duties. For one or two weeks after he reports to Parliament, everyone focuses on the complexity of the task, on the visibility of his work. Then, it is back to oblivion for another year.

He must-and arguments favour more frequent reporting-be given the opportunity to make more than one yearly report. To achieve this, we will have to use general wording.

Auditor General Act
Private Members' Business

11:25 a.m.

Liberal

Eleni Bakopanos Saint-Denis, QC

Madam Speaker, I am very pleased to address the House on this bill to amend the Auditor General Act. I have followed the discussion with interest on the question of when and how the Auditor General reports to Parliament.

Since 1980, the public accounts committee and the Auditor General have repeatedly recommended that the Auditor General Act be amended to allow more frequent reporting to Parliament. Such recommendations were made in 1984, 1986, 1988 and 1993.

Both the former Auditor General, Mr. Kenneth Dye, and the current Auditor General, Mr. Denis Desautels, have supported initiatives to amend the Auditor General Act to allow them to report results of individual audits at their completion.

Both Auditors General have examined the merits of completion date reporting. They have noted that more frequent reporting would lead to a more even workload within the office of the Auditor General. This would lead to improved efficiencies. However there has been no estimate of the magnitude of these efficiencies.

The primary benefit for supporting change to allow the Auditor General to report more frequently would be to enable Parliament and the public accounts committee to discuss the findings of the Auditor General on a more timely basis.

This would imply that corrective action could be taken sooner and that Parliament would be in a better position to influence that action. These are indisputable goals. However, it must be clear that we are not referring here to the timely reporting of very urgent issues.

Section 8 of the current Auditor General Act already allows him to report at any time to the House of Commons on any matter of pressing importance or urgency that in his opinion should not be deferred until the presentation of the annual report.

This section allows the Auditor General to make a timely report to Parliament on any pressing matter. Yet, no Auditor General has never done so. Why is that?

Another reason advanced for changing the current act is that more frequent reporting will help the public accounts committee to do a better job. The committee will be able to hold department and agency officials more accountable to Parliament and the Canadian taxpayers.

For instance it will be more likely that public service employees called as witnesses before the public accounts committee will be the same ones involved at the time of the Auditor General's audit. In the past this was not always the case. Again this is an admirable goal which members should support. Anything we can do to improve the results of this important committee should be seriously considered.

However the most important question we must ask ourselves today is what will be the impact of this bill on the effectiveness of the office of the Auditor General?

The Auditor General is effective because of his independence and the credibility that results from that independence. We would not want to support changes to the act that would put the Auditor General's independence at risk.

The Auditor General recognizes the importance of his independence. It is a key component of his office's mission statement. The Office of the Auditor General of Canada conducts independent audits and examinations that provide objective information, advice and assurance to Parliament. We promote accountability and best practices in government operations.

The importance and the necessity of the work of the Auditor General and the public accounts committee is not a question for debate. It is how we can make the best use of these important tools that is the issue.

In the past when the issue of completion dates reporting was discussed in the House, it was noted quite correctly that the findings of the Auditor General have become more positive in recent years. The Auditor General has been reporting in his annual follow-up chapter that progress has been made in solving problems reported in earlier reports. Improvements in departmental management are being made and reported by the Auditor General.

Reporting audit findings closer to the completion date of the audit will result in early reports to Parliament, but this alone will not solve the timeliness problem.

The very nature of the auditing process is a partial explanation. Complete auditing within a department can in fact take up to two years. I know the Auditor General is working on a solution.

It should be remembered as well that audit findings are discussed with the managers responsible as they are being developed. Issues are addressed by government managers on a priority basis as they are identified by the auditee. Corrective action plans are generally developed well before the tabling of the Auditor General's report to Parliament.

I believe that the Auditor General would be happy to report that all the problems have been solved. In one of his first reports he noted: "Accordingly, the greatest professional satisfaction for me and for my colleagues in the office will not be the disclosure of error, waste and loss, but rather the evidence that management has corrected unsatisfactory situations".

Mechanisms are in place within the government to address observations made by the Auditor General. Furthermore, as I commented earlier, provisions already exist in the Auditor General Act that empower the Auditor General to report to Parliament on an urgent basis at any time.

This act is a very important piece of legislation. It is critical to the accountability process that takes place between the government and Parliament and the Canadian public. However, it is an act that is viewed as being very successful. Canadian taxpayers are happy that they have an independent and effective watchdog on their side.

I have another concern relating to the proposed amendments to the current act. I am concerned that the Auditor General could come to be used as a short term investigator asked by House committees and others to respond to the partisan controversies of the day. Pressures to agree to investigate concerns of this nature could place an unbearable workload on his office. This additional workload could put completion of his extensive statutory workload in jeopardy.

In summary, I would like to emphasize that we should be careful when amending the Auditor General Act. We should ensure that we have all the facts on the table. We should know all the consequences, both the positive and the negative.

In conclusion, the amendment proposed here at report stage is an inappropriate one. It calls essentially for mandatory quarterly reports rather than a more reasonable approach of one report annually with the option for additional reports as audits are completed.

The Auditor General opposes this sort of additional duty because it forces him to have a new report three more times a year, whether he is ready or not. The amendment has the potential to be an absurd waste, given the fluctuations of the audit cycle.

The Auditor General is opposed to the amendment because he does not feel he should be required to report until he is ready. He must have the choice, as given him by the act.

I urge all members to oppose this amendment.

Auditor General Act
Private Members' Business

11:30 a.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mrs. Maheu)

Is the House ready for the question?

Auditor General Act
Private Members' Business

11:30 a.m.

Some hon. members

Question.

Auditor General Act
Private Members' Business

11:30 a.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mrs. Maheu)

Is it the pleasure of the House to adopt the amendment?

Auditor General Act
Private Members' Business

11:30 a.m.

Some hon. members

Agreed.

Auditor General Act
Private Members' Business

11:30 a.m.

Some hon. members

No.

Auditor General Act
Private Members' Business

11:30 a.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mrs. Maheu)

All those in favour of the motion will please say yea.

Auditor General Act
Private Members' Business

11:30 a.m.

Some hon. members

Yea.