CLOSE-UP: KENNETH DYE

The $500-billion man

Ken MacQueen April 29 1985
CLOSE-UP: KENNETH DYE

The $500-billion man

Ken MacQueen April 29 1985

The $500-billion man

CLOSE-UP: KENNETH DYE

Ken MacQueen

It was 1961 when the struggling entrepreneurs first met their new accountant. To Stella Shurety and her brother Herb Horton—owners of the Donut Diner on West 10th Avenue in Vancouver—he was a reassuring young man: “very, very thorough,” recalled Stella. She and Herb were trying to get started in the restaurant business and robust, ruddy young Kenneth Dye was articling as a chartered accountant at the University of British Columbia.

From that year on, Dye visited each year to complete the income tax return. The arrangement lasted until 1981—when the federal Liberal government named the Donut Diner’s accountant as Canada’s eighth auditor general.

When Dye arrived in Ottawa in the spring of 1981, observers commented that he lacked the fiery, irascible consumer advocacy passions of such predecessors as Maxwell Henderson and James Macdonell. They swiftly changed their minds. Over four years he has launched a successful campaign to make

Canada’s 300 Crown corporations publicly accountable for their financial dealings. Then, last July, Dye shattered what little remained of his bland image. He became the first auditor general to sue the federal government.

Dye was seeking access to secret cabinet documents relating to Crown-owned Petro-Canada’s 1981 purchase of Petrofina, the Brussels-based energy conglomerate. When the Federal Court hands down its verdict in May, his audacious act will determine how accountable the cabinet must be to Parliament’s auditor. During a recent interview in his imposing llth-floor Ottawa office, Dye, 49, told Maclean's, “The government is trying to shut down my legitimate access to information I require.”

Still, Dye, whose late father, Allan, was a B.C. Telephone maintenance man, insists that he prefers to quietly paddle a canoe than to rock the boat. As a boy his social orbit and that of his two younger brothers Laurie and Gardiner included St. Philip’s Anglican Church in Vancouver and its boy scout troop. Once he had chosen accounting as his career, he steered on one course: he articled as an accountant with a Vancouver firm —now called Pannell, Kerr, Forster —and remained with it for 20 years. In 1958 he married Frances Johnston, a vivacious Vancouver nurse. As Dye attracted bigger clients, he became a partner in the firm. But through all those changes, he never abandoned the Donut Diner, a $200 account. Since he departed, Shurety said that her loss is the country’s gain: “Ken Dye would do his best to see fair play.”

That sense of integrity attracted the search committee of accountants established in 1980 by Donald Johnston, then president of the Treasury Board, to fill the job of federal auditor general. Dye, at the time president of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of British Columbia, was also a high-profile westerner. The committee chose him. Recalled Johnston: “He seemed to be, and I think is, a good, solid citizen for whom Canadians would have a lot of respect in terms of judgment.”

Indeed, Dye projects an image of solidity: of family, church and a balanced budget. Since moving to Ottawa he has attended St. Thomas the Apostle Anglican Church with Frances and their children, Beth, now 22, Lesleigh, 18, and Jamie, 13, and serves as chairman of the audit committee for the Ottawa diocese. He also recruited Desmond Kimmitt, his former parish priest in Vancouver, to lead the auditor general’s communications group and help write audit reports. As well, Dye—once a King’s scout, then the highest rank in scouting—currently serves as national treasurer for Boy Scouts of Canada. Four years into his fixed 10-year

term, Dye gives little indication that he is suffering any added strain because of the lawsuit. “I would do this job for a dollar a year if I could afford to live on a dollar a year,” he acknowledged. Instead, he accepts a $103,000 annual salary to ensure that the government keeps its books as well as owners of the diner have done. Noting that the United States does not have a set of audited financial statements like Canada, Dye added: “I sign the biggest financial statement in North America. I sign off on about $500 billion worth of transactions.”

The fact that some of that money gets lost, misdirected or wasted makes the auditor general’s annual report each December a major source of political controversy. Last year he embarrassed the department of defence when he noted that the aerials for 138CF-18 fighter jets, which were estimated to cost $9 each, were billed to Canadian taxpayers for $2,077.29 each. The report also warned of a “real danger” that the $35billion annual federal deficit, aided by a government accounting system that was rife with overstated assets and unrecorded liabilities, could go out of control.

Those comments are considered to be within the province of the auditor general. By contrast, Dye’s actions in demanding cabinet documents dealing with the Petrofina purchase, first from the Liberal and now the Conservative government, are unprecedented. The auditor general says that he is concerned about the transaction because without the papers he cannot determine whether or not Canadian taxpayers got their money’s worth. But in federal court last month a senior federal lawyer claimed that Dye seemed intent on becoming “the leader of an extraparliamentary, nonelected opposition.” In a well-publicized speech, Senator Michael Pitfield blamed the auditor general’s expanding mandate for the fact that the cost of running the office had climbed to $38.5 million last year from barely $700,000 in 1956. Pitfield declared, “I fear it is only a question of time before that office becomes highly politicized.”

But Dye contends that he is dedicated to the premise that, as much as possible, government operations should be open to scrutiny. And when the court case is over, Dye is planning to take his crusade further: he wants to publish “a

sort of corporate annual report” for Canada. Filled with graphics and accessible language, it would be an intelligible measure of the government’s stewardship of the economy.

If he succeeds, the auditor general may move the government one step closer to running its affairs the way Ken Dye runs his life. Said Dye: “I am not a very fancy person. I say what I mean. I’m always on the record.