The Poise of a Fraser

A Little Pinkerton Work May Reveal That All Auditors-General Eat Porridge

JOHN MacCORMAC January 1 1914

The Poise of a Fraser

A Little Pinkerton Work May Reveal That All Auditors-General Eat Porridge

JOHN MacCORMAC January 1 1914

UP IN a big room in the Eastern block of the Parliament buildings at Ottawa a man is seated before a desk.

There are many men seated at many desks in the Eastern block but this is a small man and before him is a big book in divers volumes. The man is none other than John Fraser, auditor-general of Canada and one of the least imposing, as far as mere physical proportions go, of those who fill the high seats of government service. The book of divers volumes is—no. not a copy of the Domesday Book or the Encyclopaedia Britannica but the annual report of the auditor-general and the biggest and bulkiest bluebook the Printing Bureau ever takes two weeks longer than it should to turn out.

When one, either on business or curiosity bent, eludes the secretary who guards the portal, of the sanctum of the high priest of Canadian government receipts and expenditures and pushes open the green covered door that gives inward to its mysteries one’s first impression is that of an excessive tranquility, a curious aura of quietude that seems to defy rather than invite interruption. The atmosphere of the room breathes a peace not like any other peace and its occupant fairly radiates it! “Here is a man,’’ one’s mentality whispers shrewdly, “who has known not worry and been immune to care—one of the fortunate ones whose brain has never had to vex itself with hard material facts or batter against the barrier of stern realities.”

But someone is saying something— saying it evenly and unemotionally as though he were not announcing an anomaly, whose very manner of calm statement cries to your sense of the fitness of things as proclaiming the impossible.

“Yes, about $500,000,000 in accounts passes annually through my hands. Yes ---oh yes, I have to check over all of them, just to see they’re not excessive or anything, you know,” the calm voice informs you. “They’re all here in my report. No, that’s not all of it: that only goes from Q to Y but possibly you don’t want to look over the whole thing just now?”

No, the visitor thinks Q to Y will do, thank you. He’s fairly good at accounts himself still Q to Y, he considers, will serve his turn. Some day when he is tired of the struggle of life he will start at A to C and when he reaches M to L they will take him away, babbling merrily in his straitjacket, and the country will have to keep him—behind stone walls, with glass on them.

His Coat of Mail

And yet when one has had time to reflect the anomaly ceases to be anomalous and the apparent paradox resolves itself into a simple case of cause and effect. Tranquility and the checking over of $500,000,000 of accounts would scarcely appear synonymous to the average mind but with Mr. John Fraser they have to be—otherwise he would not be auditor-general. No other armor would shield him from destruction beneath the avalanche of facts and figures he has to juggle with every year, take apart and piece together and finally build up into that same monster report you see on the desk before him. It's his mental coat of mail, this tranquility; when he gets up in the morning he takes it off the end of the bed where he has hung it during the night, puts it on, hooks it up the back, closes the visor and, armed with a magnifying glass and a pruning knife, goes out to cut down what he can, let the chips fall where they may. Or you might consider it as a figurative diving suit, garbed in which he leaps into the ocean of accounts and probes the dark holes of illegal expenditures for ill-gotten gold. Personally, however, we do not favor the latter metaphor; for it has this inherent incongruity that the ocean is undoubtedly very wet while the sort of facts that Mr. Fraser has to deal with are on the contrary very, very dry.

It is in this careful checking over of government expenditures that the true inwardness of the position of auditor-general of Canada lies. No payment of public money may be made without his consent. It is his august prerogative to decide the economic value and necessity for a roller towel or a drydock, a rubber stamp for the Interior Department or a new ship for the Canadian navy. But as with all power, the greater it is the greater the penalty for its misuse. In every case where the auditor-general declines payment on the ground that the money is not justly due or that there is no parliamentary authority for its payment, the Dominion Treasury Board has the right to overrule his objection and order the payment to be made. So far no objections of the present auditor-general have met this fate. When they do-—well, it’s almost as serious a matter as a vote of want of confidence is to a government. As is only proper with a position of such importance, however, it is one whose occupant may not easily he removed. Only the Governor-General on address from the Senate and the House of Commons possesses the power to do so and for our own part we would almost cheerfully relinquish any position if the Governor-General, the Senate and the House of Commons wanted to go to all that trouble on our behalf. We could go on the stage with the advertising!

The history of the office is a short one. It was first established in 1878, the late J. Lorn McDougall being appointed on August 1 of that year and superannuated in 1905 when the reins passed into the bands of their present holder, who is assisted by a staff of eighty.

In Intellectual Kilts

Of course Mr. Fraser is a Scotsman and so was Mr. McDougall before him. That goes without saying. They make an Irishman minister of justice and in times past have trusted a Frenchman with a premiership but when it comes to reducing the principles of governorship to actual dollars and cents the position cries aloud for a Scotsman. They say if you scratch an auditor-general in any country in the world you will find a Gael. His name may be Popoff or Herr Wienerwurst or it may even be Ali ben Alkali but that s only an accident of birth ; his body may be clad in flowing bloomers but his mind is decked out in intellectual kilts. It’s ten to one, too, that a little Pinkerton work on him would bring it to light that he ate porridge in the morning and took no stronger stimulant than Scotch whiskey. Porridge, or to use the technical term, parritch, is the sort of luxurious living they train auditors-general on to give them the proper viewpoint. It’s a fine, heartening diet for the sort of work they do and it has the advantage that it doesn’t stimulate the brain overmuch. Not, for instance, to the point where the heinousness of the crime involved in paying 11 cents for a totally unauthorized can of string beans would fail to appear in its true light. A definition of the true light would approximate a strong brimstone yellow with lurid touches of fiery purple, for where your Irishman or Frenchman would regard the checking over of expenditures as a business your Scotsman, brought up on the national regimen, approaches it as a religion and with that species of chastened fervor that only oatmeal induces in its votaries. Expenditures containing any suspicion of heteredoxy are promptly burned at the stake.

There are, as stated, two features of the work of the auditor-general’s office. One is the auditor-general and the other his report. The latter is a stupendous work. In contemplating it one feels as he feels when he first looks on the mighty face of the Sphinx or gazes over the vast aridity of the Libyan desert. If a visitor from Mars should ask to be shown one of the seven wonders produced by the hand of man they would hand him an auditor-general’s report. Similarly if the practice of homeopathy is ever extended to the core of lunacy one can see in his mind's eye future generations of the mentally unfit becoming sane again over the perusual of A to L. report of auditor-general of Canada for 1999.

It is a wonderful mass of figures, comprising as it does the whole expenditure for the purpose of Canadian government during each year and in its immensity of detail it staggers the ordinary mind. Anyone who has ever—no, not perused —but simply glanced at it cannot fail to be impressed by the bigness of the Big Business of government. When one’s eye runs down the columns setting forth how much Churchill, Charles and Company or Jones Brothers are to be credited for supplying the hydrographic surveys with 10 tins of dessicated potatoes and 6 bags of flour or what it costs the country to maintain public buildings in the Province of Alberta and a watchman in a storehouse in a British Columbia drydock—well, one realizes why it is an auditor-general is the nearest approach to omniscience the human race can show.

The Mass of Detail

But there is much information not exclusively of a drily practical nature in this report and it isn’t necessary to hit more than a few of the high places to glean it. We are accustomed to think of government as a high and mighty thing (except of course, when we arc civil servants when it figures more as an abstraction made real only by the strenuous official efforts of some of its employes whose names modesty forbids us to mention, performed at grossly inadequate pittances). We are accustomed to regard administration, we repeat, as immune from the ordinary hazards that beset the individual unless possibly from the let-not-your-right-band-know manipulations of the grafting politician, and yet two whole pages in the auditor-general’s report, Division S, Page 118-9, are devoted to a less open form of alienation of receipts, losses from fire and burglary sustained by the Post Office Department. Just $4,009.57 was lost to Canada under this head in one year and no inconsiderable portion of it was due to dark lantern or second storey methods. It follows almost as a natural consequence, therefore, that the Secret Preventive Service is a head under which a long list of expenditures is cited for everybody knows the old adage about the comparatively cheap ounce of prevention which is so much more effective and adds less to the high cost of living than the pound of cure.

But if the weaknesses of government are mercilessly laid bare in the big blue hook of receipts and expenditures its benevolent and even philanthropic aspects are emphasized for all to see. To begin with there is a long list of gratuities credited to nearly every department. Now by gratuities is not meant the expenditure of small sums to grease the itching palm of subserviency, but grants to the wives and families of deceased officials of the civil service. These range from $500 down in most cases and constitute an expenditure which none but the most unfeeling could well carp at. The hazardous side of government work is emphasized under the head of Compensation for Injuries. The surveyor who makes a misstep and plunges down the steep side of the declivity on whose brink he is working, the Mounted Police constable who staggers into some outlying furtrading post dragging a useless limb which the Frost King has levied tribute on him for, the railway mail clerk who is dragged out, a shattered thing, from beneath the wreckage of a splintered baggage car, all are comprehended, if one but knew it, in the simple statement of names and amounts which seems so devoid of interest as it appears on the printed page.

A nation ’s mourning for its great King is recalled by some five sheets i& the report for 1911 setting forth accounts incurred in connection with the furnishings of trappings of woe for public buildings in every part of Canada. What though it was for a King? It cost Canada something and therefore must appear in the auditor-general’s report as inevitably as though monarch! passed with the passing seasons of every year.

Government Philanthropy

Yes, the government is a most philanthropic institution designed chiefly for the uplift of man at any price—Look at the cost of power for the elevators in the public buildings of Ottawa alone last year, 17.081.81. The interesting question here arises whether one, under this head of philanthropy, should also class the various items of expenditure set forth in connection with the upkeep of the Senate, variously referred to by horny handed iconoclasts from the Lower Chamber as a nursing home and mortuary chamber. But perhaps the gentlemen—no, the honorable gentlemen, for so they are designated in the address from the throne whereas the House of Commons has to be satisfied with the plain, unadorned title in spite of the unfortunate inference that though they are gentlemen they are nut honorable one*—of the Upper Chamber might object and maintain that the government was paying for the collective experience embodied within their honorable company and getting it cheap at that, a species of paid-for-what-we-know-not-what-we-do proposition.

But how should one classify, we wonder, another little item listed as Publication of Debates? The natural gas that arises occasionally from the earth's troubled bosom is taken care of under Conservation of Natural Resources but apparently no provision has been made for the preservation under this bead of the human output. But hold; possibly the wise men who sit in august council at the head of affairs were satisfied that no provision need be made inasmuch as the supply would be unfailing anyhow.

There are several rather interesting little things, too, connected with naval expenditures as they appear in the auditor-general’s report, as for instance one item which reads: Cab hire, $29.25.

Well, well! It isn’t until we peruse items like these we really begin to comprehend the size of some of these big warships. No doubt at the very time of writing there are warships under course of construction in connection with which a taxicab service will have to be provided so that the officers may drive around with sufficient despatch to enable them properly to attend to their duties and possibly the time may yet come when ‘motor' bus lines may be the rule on all No. 1 size leviathans.

Air guns might also seem somewhat of an incongruity in connection with a navy yet on Page 11, Section Q, there appears an item to this effect: air rifles, 2 at $10.22, The account does not state whether this is to make youthful cadets feel more at home or to shoot, possibly, passing seagulls to feed to the dog watch and the bosun’s cat. These cadets, by the way, are treated liberally by a paternal government as is apparent when one rends farther down the page and finds an item of $112.50 made up of pocket money for cadets, 50 cents per week. It is understood on good authority that they get this even if they don't actually need it.

Canada may treat her Governor-General handsomely but she wants to know what’s what in regard to the amounts involved just the same as the almost embarrassing detail in which Rideau Hall accounts are given bears witness. The injurious effects of the Canadian climate on the throat are probably responsible for the need that appears to have arisen for 5 atomizers at $5.75 or possibly the real cause was instead the natural laryngeal irritation consequent on the welcoming of some hundreds of guests at a State ball. The severity of our temperatures according to British ideas, too, is evidenced by a little account for 108 hot water bottles at $1 each, presumably to keep the toes of vice-regality warm. But there’s a limit to everything and most people will agree it should stop short of prying into the secrets of our first families.


Two ways at once suggest themselves In which a great financial or audit department might be described to the public. Usually a writer would treat such a subject seriously and would place before the reader the indispensable place occupied in the public service by the Canadian Auditor-General, the character and magnitude of the service, and the restraint it exercises on improvident disbursements of the people ’s money. The other way, touching the department and its occupants lightly, extracting dry humor from musty accounts, and beguiling the reader away from the edge of saggy monetary muskegs to the personal and very human aspect of the subject, is that followed by Mr. MacCormac in his racy and readable sketch. As is obvious, the object of the article is to draw wider attention than is usually given, to one of the most useful agencies in our public service. Very much indeed, of the confidence placed in our various governments is unconsciously based on the fact that the watchdog of the Treasury never sleeps, that not one payment, however small, or however special in character, can be made without the scrutiny of this great office, whose authority is commensurate with the importance of its functions, and whose occupants, happily, have, since its establishment, commanded the merited confidence of Parliament and of the people.—Editor.