moved that Bill C-207, an act to amend the Auditor General Act, be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Mr. Speaker, today I have the honour to introduce Bill C-207 and to recommend that it be passed.
The purpose of this bill is to amend the Auditor General Act, in order to allow the Auditor General to report to the House upon completion of his report or as he deems necessary.
I am the adoptive sponsor of this legislation, since many other members of this House have thought of this initiative. As well, former colleagues in previous Parliaments have tried to have such a measure passed under circumstances which may have been different from those prevailing today.
This private member's bill was approved by nearly all of the Public Accounts Committee chairpersons of the last 15 or 16 years. The bill is also based on several recommendations from the Standing Committee on Public Accounts, the Standing Senate Committee on National Finance, and others. I am pleased to say that the Auditor General of Canada, Mr. Desautels, also gave me his support in a three-page letter which he sent to me last March 22, and which I will be glad to show to hon. members if they wish to take a look at it.
The Auditor General of Canada is a senior civil servant of the Parliament of Canada; he is an official of this House. This is a very important position. That person has the responsibility of reviewing expenditures authorized by the House, and must tell us if these expenditures are done in an efficient and effective manner, and if they meet the objectives.
So, the Auditor General's report, which is currently tabled annually-members are familiar with this thick document containing about 750 pages-is very important, since it allows us to evaluate the government's business and strategic management. This report provides essential data to help parliamentarians and government to better evaluate the relevancy of a program, and to correct within a reasonable delay administrative practices which are not sound.
At present, the Auditor General must table his report on or before December 31, in the year to which the report relates. Yet, the evaluation included in the report covers the fiscal year ending on March 31 of the previous year. Since the evaluation of a department or an agency can take up to two years, this means that the information contained in the Auditor General's annual report is sometimes more than three years old. This, in my opinion, hinders the efforts of the House to make the government and its management accountable to Canadians. The information is often not up to date and even less relevant.
Indeed, sometimes, after so many years, managers responsible for the activities scrutinized have been transferred, or the incumbent at the time the Public Accounts Committee conducts its review has no idea of what happened, or was not there at the time, or does not care about what happened or what was reviewed by the Auditor General.
Of course, a department's management team may have changed since the evaluation was done, since the department is informed during the evaluation conducted by the Auditor General. In fact, it even participates in the exercise and it is invited by the Auditor General to submit reasons explaining the situation which will be exposed in the annual report.
Generally speaking, however, it is only after the Auditor General of Canada has tabled his report in the House that we parliamentarians are informed that departments or agencies are under pressure to make the necessary changes to these bad administrative practices.
Delays cost taxpayers billions of dollars. I will give you just a few of many examples. In his assessment of programs for seniors, as described in chapter 18 of his last report, the Auditor General of Canada observed significant deficiencies in the management of the Canada Pension Plan program. For instance, pensions were paid to deceased beneficiaries. Systems and procedures were inadequate to identify, control and collect these overpayments.
According to the Auditor General, overpayments range from $120 million to $220 million. If the act had allowed him to, the Auditor General could have tabled his report four months earlier, thus helping to save a large part of the hundreds of millions of dollars lost.
The dividends paid to Canadian companies by foreign affiliates have deprived the government of hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues. I am not exaggerating, as close to $400 million have been lost.
Before the 1993 general election was called, the Committee on Public Accounts tabled a substantive report proposing measures to correct these practices costing money to the government. In the time available between the audit and the tabling of the report, the committee would have been able to ask the
Department of Finance, before the election, to submit its response to Parliament within the 150 days provided for in the Regulations for tabling a departmental response to a parliamentary committee.
The delay is frustrating for the members of the Committee on Public Accounts who worked hard to try to correct a situation that is very costly for the government. If we go back ten years, many of you will remember the scientific research tax credit, which cost the government some $2 billion over ten months.
In 1985, the Committee on Public Accounts sharply criticized the Auditor General of Canada for not bringing earlier before Parliament the results of his audit. But the act forbids him to do so. He may table only one report annually. That is where my bill comes in. I want to change this situation. Had he informed Parliament seven months earlier, the Auditor General might have allowed us to save over $1 billion.
In his last report the Auditor General of Canada devoted an important chapter, chapter 22, to airport transfers. The auditor might have easily presented his report in May or June 1993 when his evaluation was terminated. If so, the report could have had a great influence on the Pearson airport transaction, for example. Unfortunately the auditor's report was tabled after the event.
Chapter 15 in the same report indicated that $587 million was spent by the government on the northern cod adjustment and recovery program without clear legislative authority. The Auditor General of Canada raised grave doubts regarding some of the hurried allowances given to those ineligible persons who ought not to have benefited from that program. The auditor might have tabled his report in March of last year rather than wait for December thereby again saving Canadians millions of dollars.
Particularly in this era of budgetary restraints it is imperative to improve governmental management practices. It is imperative for us to have better accountability for public funds. Moreover, I say that we in the Liberal Party said in our red book during the election that we would exercise unwavering discipline in controlling federal spending and would reorder current spending priorities to make sure that maximum return was obtained on each investment.
I am of the opinion that punctual reporting by the auditor without being the only solution would give the Liberal government of today additional tools to allow cutting of waste while realizing valuable objectives. Therefore the adoption of my bill would constitute a step in the right direction.
Some would suggest that punctual reporting, and I have heard it, would possibly reinforce or feed the media hype over this annual report. As we all know it gets the attention of the media for maybe two or three days a year, possibly a week sometimes, but no more. After that it pales into oblivion and the public accounts committee is asked to look into some things that sometimes date several years and sometimes are frustrating for us to examine because we know the press are not interested.
Let us not kid ourselves. Some people want to eliminate waste. We as parliamentarians have an obligation to the people of Canada to do our best to try to meet that challenge. Canadians want to be assured that legislators have all the information to reduce wasteful spending in the government infrastructure.
Moreover, the last annual report of the Auditor General for 1992-93 contains 775 pages. As I said it is a huge volume. It is complicated. It is indeed technical sometimes and it is very important in my view. The report, in my experience having chaired the public accounts committee, is a source of invaluable information for members of Parliament who want to know how the government administers public funds.
It brings forth information to improve the management of public funds. It would make us more efficient. It would make the government certainly more effective in trying to come to grips with the huge administration of some $160 billion a year.
The public accounts committee, as we all know, has been a very non-partisan committee over the years. That is the way it should be. It should be able to plan and order its business in a more efficient and quicker way of doing business. It should be able to profit from the examples set in England, Australia, New Zealand and other parliamentary systems similar to ours where the study or the overview of public accounts is done on a more regular basis by Parliament.
I would be astonished, for example in my riding of Ottawa-Vanier, if a business person or somebody said to me that he had to wait a year and a half before knowing if he made a profit and that he had to wait another two years to figure out which corrective he had to use to reduce the losses. Nobody could operate a business that way. The government should not do it that way either. I would hope the House would see fit to support the bill which only presents a small amendment but in my view a very important change to the way we do business.
I mentioned at the beginning of my speech it is useful to note that the Auditor General wrote to me on March 22, 1994. I want to read into the record one paragraph of that letter if I have time:
This office would benefit from efficiency improvements resulting from completing work in progress rather than having to put it aside and then pick it up again at the time of tabling of the annual report. This disruptive effect of the annual report tabling on the smooth and orderly flow of work through this office cannot be overemphasized.
Underlying this Mr. Desautels said: "Ultimately the taxpayers of Canada will be the main beneficiaries". Earlier reporting of audit results will lead to faster correction of problems. In my view this means greater savings for Canadians, reduced risk, better management and generally better government.
Therefore for these reasons I ask the House, in a spirit of better accountability to Canadians, in a free and open spirit, to assure the passage of the bill. By the way I am proud to say I have the support of many members of Parliament. I have at least 70 letters of support for this bill from this House. I am very proud of that. I think it is a good sign. It is a hopeful sign.
I hope the bureaucracy does not meddle in this issue, that it stays out of this debate and does not start trying to prevent this from happening. It did it before. I hope this time we parliamentarians keep our minds open, that we do it with an open and free will. Let us not have the bureaucracy tell us what we should be doing in this House.