Column

ONE TOUGH QUESTIONER

Auditor General Sheila Fraser fears she may be undermining faith in Ottawa

MARY JANIGAN June 2 2003
Column

ONE TOUGH QUESTIONER

Auditor General Sheila Fraser fears she may be undermining faith in Ottawa

MARY JANIGAN June 2 2003

ONE TOUGH QUESTIONER

Column

Auditor General Sheila Fraser fears she may be undermining faith in Ottawa

MARY JANIGAN

IT WAS THAT METICULOUS Scot, Alexander Mackenzie, who established the venerable post of auditor general. Tireless and principled, Canada’s second prime minister had witnessed a spate of distressing scandals: the government of his predecessor, Sir John A. Macdonald, was obliged to resign after boldly soliciting campaign funds from railway contractors. Mackenzie was determined to do better: in April, 1878, his finance minister introduced legislation to appoint an independent auditor in order to “free the auditing of public accounts from any interference on the part of the administration.” Mackenzie anointed a former MP to take over the scrutiny of Ottawa’s books from a civil servant, the deputy minister of finance. MPs on both sides of the House cheered when the legislation debuted.

It’s a little quieter on the Liberal side these days whenever Auditor General Sheila Fraser produces any of her annual four reports. But Mackenzie would be enormously proud of this dignified Quebec-born descendant of Scottish settlers, the first woman to fill the post. Marking two years into her 10-year term on May 31, the former partner at Ernst & Young Inc. is a dogged, dauntless snoop for hard-pressed taxpayers. It’s a huge job: Ottawa will collect $185 billion in 20032004; it has more than 453,000 employees, including the military. Fraser audits the operations of about 70 departments and agencies along with some 40 Crown corporations. She must attest to the accuracy of accounts, ensure that bureaucrats spend the money on what Parliament wants—and verify that taxpayers get value for their dollars.

Fraser, 52, was to the ledger born: her grandfather’s cousin held the post in the early 20th century. Raised on her family’s farm near Valleyfield, Que., she studied commerce at McGill University and became a chartered accountant in 1974. And while Fraser and her husband, accountant Henri Gagnon, raised their three children, she somehow managed Ernst & Young’s Quebec City office for 22 years. Along the way,

she picked up valuable lessons. “One of my first partners said, ‘You know, they do not pay us for the easy answers,’ ” she says in her glass-walled office overlooking Parliament Hill. “And that stuck with me: they really do pay us at times to disagree with them.”

The tough answers are already in evidence. Fraser has shrewdly dedicated one of her yearly reports to examining what departments have done in response to the auditor’s recommendations. (Previous auditors tacked follow-ups onto the end of reports.) This week, her look down previously troubled memory lanes includes a probe of how the customs agency is faring in its ongoing struggle to cope with the security risks of commercial shipments and new arrivals. “Unfortunately the follow-ups never got a lot of attention,” Fraser says. “But the real test to

‘THE FOLLOW-UPS never got a lot of attention. But the real test is: you raise an issuenow does anybody actually do anything with this?’

me is: you raise an issue—now does anybody actually do anything with this? It is really important that we show if government does respond—or not—and if change occurs—or not.”

Expect more tough talk in the years ahead. Each auditor general selects themes for his or her term that particularly interest them. Along with the far more staid subjects of accountability to Parliament and an effective public service, Fraser has chosen the well-being of Canadians, the nation’s heritage, and Aboriginal issues. For her, well-being includes security, health and the environment. And that means a long overdue look at how prepared Canada is to fend off terrorist threats. In early April, she reported that the gap between deportation orders from Canada and confirmed departures has grown to

36,000 individuals over six years. And she warned that neither customs nor immigration is very effective in identifying potentially inadmissible visitors at arrival points.

Her other themes are also pertinent. In her November report, Fraser will dedicate a chapter to an often-neglected audit area: Ottawa’s stewardship of parks, art collections and historic buildings. “What are we leaving to the next generation?” she asks. Aboriginal issues include on-reserve housing and economic development. Last year, she reported on four tiny Saskatchewan First Nations that spent thousands of dollars on filing at least 168 reports to comply with requirements from their four major funding groups. Most information was never used. “Would those funds not be better used to deliver front line services?” she asks.

Such estimable work has its share of perils. Last year, at Ottawa’s behest, Fraser probed three sponsorship contracts: her blistering report prompted a police investigation. In response, several Liberal MPs muttered darkly about her motives. Fraser was shocked. Undeterred, she has launched a government-wide look at contracts for sponsorship, advertising and public opinion research that will also be tabled in November. “They say when you are in the kitchen, you have to learn to take the heat,” she says. “And the practices we found in those three contracts were so unacceptable that it forced us to do it government-wide.”

She has also been caught in a protracted tussle with the Treasury Board in a bid to find a new way to set her budget. The Commons Public Accounts Committee urged Fraser to do this after some Treasury Board officials, during meetings to discuss her annual spending requests, questioned why she had selected certain topics for audit. “It is inappropriate for the Treasury Board to put a muzzle on the auditor general,” says committee chair and Canadian Alliance MP John Williams. “She is extremely effective.”

That very effectiveness often distresses Fraser: what if her critical reports undermine people’s faith in government? “I worry sometimes,” she says,“that we can be viewed as feeding into cynicism.” No need to fret. Fraser is actually a powerful antidote to skepticism: her very existence, the mere threat of her scrutiny, boost confidence in this government’s often shaky management. 171

Mary Janigan’s column appears every other issue. mjanigan@macleans.ca