Yes, Mr. Chair. I have about a 10-minute oral statement that I will make to the group.
By way of context and background, let me just tell you a bit about myself and how I ended up here in front of you today. I was educated at the universities of Saskatchewan and Alberta, and at Carleton, where I've taught for the last 24 years. My research interests are in energy, environment, and sustainable development policy. An example of the work I do is the recent UBC press book entitled Sustainable Production: Building Canadian Capacity. I also edit an annual volume entitled Innovation, science and environment: Building Canadian Capacity, and with a group of colleagues, I'm also organizing a major conference this fall entitled Crafting the Future, Learning from the Past: The Path to a Sustainable Canada, 1987 to 2027. So we're going to look back 20 years and then look forward 20 years.
From 1989 to 1991 I was an advisor to the deputy minister of Environment Canada during the development and launch of the Mulroney government's green plan under Ministers Bouchard, de Cotret, and Charest. In 1990 I wrote a paper on the relationship between industrialists and environmentalists, which led to the creation of the New Directions Group of corporate and environmental group leaders.
My first involvement with the Office of the Auditor General was prior to the creation of the commissioner, when I participated on an advisory committee on the audit of energy megaprojects. In 1994 I was asked by officials of Environment Canada to chair the multi-sectoral advisory committee for the Chrétien government's A Guide to Green Government, which, as you know, provided the framework for the creation of the commissioner within the Office of the Auditor General.
Because of this background and work with all these different groups or elements of the policy community, in 1996 the first commissioner, Brian Emmett, asked me to create his multi-sectoral advisory committee. I did, and I've been a member of that panel since. I've also been an advisor on specific audit chapters each year. I'm currently an advisor on two audit chapters this year.
In 2004 I appeared as a witness before the Senate Standing Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources that produced the report “Sustainable Development: It's Time to Walk the Talk”.
Therefore, my views have been forged as a participant and an observer in these issues and processes.
For the record, the commissioner's advisory panel is a group of distinguished Canadians from a broad range of backgrounds. I do not speak on its behalf. My comments today are my views only.
The question before us is, what lessons have we learned over this 10-year institutional experiment known as the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development within the Office of the Auditor General? It has produced 10 annual reports. These are of a consistently high quality and are particularly good on the performance audits. This is not surprising. It builds on the great strength of the Office of the Auditor General, producing ex-post, rear-view mirror types of financial and performance audits. On the other hand, we have seen the underdevelopment of the commissioner-type functions, being a champion, for example, for sustainable development.
For example, think of the Commissioner of Official Languages. That independent officer of Parliament is expected by everyone to promote the use of both official languages in the Government of Canada and to encourage the growth and use of both official languages in the country to ensure that all citizens can participate in federal institutions and be well served by them. The goal is to keep the country together, even to make it a model for other bilingual countries. These are honourable, forward-looking, commissioner-type functions.
In my view, two factors have contributed to the underdevelopment of the commissioner-type functions. The first is the stature of the commissioner as a second-level officer, an Assistant Auditor General within the Office of the Auditor General. This stature is too low a profile compared to other commissioners, either domestically or internationally.
Second, the legitimate, appropriate, and historic prohibition against the Auditor General's commenting on policy or offering policy advice--as the chief financial auditor of the Government of Canada--is understandable; however, there is no question that this factor has constrained the voice of the commissioner, who is, in this arrangement, an agent or employee of the Auditor General.
Hence the evidence to date shows us that the institutional experiment of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development has been incomplete. It's strong looking backward; it's weak in looking forward and in effecting change in the government practice that affects future action.
Does looking forward matter? If the 19th and 20th century development model were still working well, we would not be having this discussion. There would be no Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, no House of Commons Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development, no departmental sustainable development strategies, arguably, no Our Common Future, no green plan, no Guide to Green Government, no millennium ecosystem assessment, and no IPCC “Fourth Assessment Report”. All of these reports, domestic and international, recognize that we have to look forward and change our development path to a sustainable one.
Indeed, sustainable development emerged from this international process over these past 20 years, and while it may be relatively early days in attempting to institutionalize sustainable development in our daily practices in the private and public sectors, we do know that sustainable development is inherently a forward-looking orientation.
In other words, we must employ foresight and consider seriously, before a decision or a policy is made, the environmental, economic, and social impacts, and the costs and benefits. The Conservatives' green plan made this argument very eloquently.
The scientific evidence is clear. The natural capital that sustains life now and that will in the future is under stress almost everywhere. The millennium ecosystem assessment began with the phrase, “At the heart of this assessment is a stark warning”. You have just read the summary of the fourth assessment report of the IPCC. You've heard what the scientific evidence is telling us across the board. All of these drivers are real. They are not going away. Evidence indicates that these issues are more important to Canadians now than ever. Is this an issue that requires our parliamentarians to look forward? I think so. You have children; you have grandchildren. They are your constituents too. Is this an issue that requires your officer of Parliament to look forward? In my view, it is, absolutely.
What is to be done? If no changes are made, if the status quo structure is retained, let's be honest with Canadians and change the statute to rename the Commissioner of Environment and Sustainable Development the environmental auditor general, or actually just environmental auditor, because there can only be one auditor general.
That is an honest description of the current office within the womb of the OAG. The environmental auditor can do excellent performance audits of existing environmental programs and report authoritatively to Parliament on the findings, no question. Yet, in 2007, as the Auditor General herself has noted, many Canadians are calling for a broader role for the commissioner. If you conclude that it is relevant for the commissioner to exercise commissioner-type functions, then the office has to be made independent of the Auditor General's Office. The Auditor General, I think, agrees with this.
An independent commissioner's office would determine independently what issues to explore. It could investigate innovative developments in other countries. It could anticipate problems and undertake special studies to show how they have been addressed in the private sector or at other levels of government and bring them to the attention of the parliamentary committee on environment and sustainable development and, through you, to the government.
As an independent officer of Parliament, the commissioner could make research-based recommendations but he could not make policy. He's not part of the executive. He would only have the powers of review and recommendation. Hence, the commissioner would be free to assess the performance of government programs. He would not be auditing himself. If the commissioner continued to audit departmental sustainable development strategies and government programs, then the independent commissioner could, without the current constraints of the OAG, comment on the broader implications of the performance audits' factual findings.
Is there a reason that an independent commissioner could not do high-quality performance audits? I do not know of any theoretical reason why this could not be done. Over the years, the Office of the Auditor General has developed rigorous processes and systems for doing performance audits, but auditors exist in private organizations and within government departments. As a recent innovation, for example, Environment Canada has a director general of audit and evaluation reporting directly to the deputy minister.
The commissioner's office could adopt the same high audit standards for its work, and perhaps some of the audit professionals who now do this work in the OAG would be willing to transfer their intellectual capital and experience to a fellow parliamentary officer's organization.
I see no reason why an independent commissioner could not carry out the majority of environmental and sustainable development performance audits, say three to six a year, as is now the case. The OAG would still have its ongoing audit work on the rest of the Government of Canada's programs. If, in that process, it identified environmental performance issues that should be raised, it could do so. Such an arrangement would minimize duplication of effort.
There's absolutely no reason I know of why two independent officers of Parliament could not work collegially and responsibly in this area. This is what happens in New Zealand. This broader scope of activity would raise the profile of the commissioner and perhaps increase the likelihood that it would be more effective in getting the government to take its fact-based audit findings seriously.
Such a commissioner's office would be an independent expert body that would make reasoned research-based arguments in favour of strengthening sustainable practices within the Government of Canada.
Sustainable development is not a partisan issue. It's not a Conservative, a Liberal, an NDP, a Bloc, or a Green issue. Political parties will continue to advocate certain types of policies and programs in this area. Companies and industry associations, environmental groups, academics, and others will continue in the finest democratic tradition to advocate changes of various kinds.
An independent commissioner would not displace or replace these actors. It could, however, be a venue for the housing of considerable expertise on sustainable development and environmental issues on behalf of all Canadians and could make reasoned, research-based arguments in this area to Parliament.
In conclusion, Mr. Chair, the experiment has been run and the evidence is in. The model of a commissioner as an agent of the Auditor General has run up against its institutional limitations. This is not a personnel problem; it's a structural problem. Environment and sustainable development issues are more significant today than they were in 1994. It is time to strengthen the role of the Commissioner of Environment and Sustainable Development. An independent commissioner is entirely necessary, viable, and doable.