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Les Leyne: Premier Christy Clark solves auditor-general debacle

The independence of MLAs on special selection committees is fully supported by Premier Christy Clark.

The independence of MLAs on special selection committees is fully supported by Premier Christy Clark.

Except when they screw up, get themselves into clumsy jams and make a wrong-headed decision on auditor general John Doyle’s future that winds up embarrassing her government.

When that happens, the “important principle” of independence gets bumped down the priority list. And the premier calls the Liberal MLAs and explains how she’d like her attempted fix of their mistake to play out.

That’s what happened when Clark returned to work after time off and decided the auditor general mess needed cleaning up.

“It’s my hope, and I’ve communicated this to the Liberal members on the committee [Eric Foster, John Les and Blair Lekstrom], that they will extend an offer to Mr. Doyle to complete his work and stay on for what would be the remaining two years of his term.”

From the range of options facing Clark, the plan she announced Wednesday is a fairly reasonable one. She could have stuck to her initial position and stayed out of it completely. But the problem could have continued to fester.

She could have tried to order a complete about-face and engineered a second six-year term for Doyle. But that would have been embarrassing.

So she tried for a moderate middle course, while blaming the problem on the legislature’s process for confirming auditors general, rather than her own people.

To recap, Doyle is finishing a six-year term and wants to stay on for a second. The all-party committee that decides such things has to be unanimous, but the Liberal side balked. So re-appointment was ruled out.

When the decision became known, it prompted suspicions the Liberals were retaliating for critical audits Doyle has handed out in the past. Those suspicions increased when it was revealed that Foster — the committee chairman — had been the subject of a critical audit earlier into the accounting of a constituency office renovation. It raised a concern about a possible conflict of interest.

Foster was cleared of any impropriety on the conflict issue and said he didn’t know anything about the renovation audit.

Clark apparently decided that having all this churning around three months before an election campaign starts was a problem. So she outlined a potential solution, acknowledging the problem in the process.

People need to have confidence the right person is picked for the right reasons “and that the process stands untainted by political agendas.”

“When there’s skepticism, it puts everybody, the MLAs and the auditor general, in an untenable position.”

She said the process itself is “profoundly flawed.” (There was controversy over the appointment process several years ago, as well.)

So her government will introduce a bill when the house sits next month to extend the term to eight years from six, with the stipulation that an auditor general serves only one term.

That would give the occupant of the office free rein to do the job without worrying about being rehired “and without perceptions that election-year concerns are playing a role,” she said.

As far as Doyle is concerned, Clark wants Foster’s committee to offer him a second term of two years, while it waits for the change to be legislated.

But it’s still an open question whether the premier’s fix will hold.

Doyle would have to accept the concept. And he’s operating on the belief that his term doesn’t expire until October. He could just as easily take his chances on a change of government in May, and wait to be reconfirmed for the full six years by the NDP.

Clark’s solution also depends on the three Liberal MLAs going along with her request. If they dig in their heels on that whole “independence” thing, it might not be a done deal. Two of them, Lekstrom and Les, are not running again. They may have their own views.

Said Clark: “If I had my wish, Mr. Doyle would be offered the opportunity to stay on for another two years.”

Her wish, as they say, is now their command.

Just So You Know: NDP leader Adrian Dix promised last week that if the government reconsidered the decision to oust Doyle, the Opposition would drop its criticism.

Clark more or less did just that, but they still sound dubious.

NDP MLA Bruce Ralston said it was a flip-flop, and NDP caucus chair Shane Simpson said it was damage control.