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Les Leyne: Why there's ill will between auditors and legislatures

It’s too bad people feel so constrained in public life that they speak much more frankly when the microphones are off. Or when they think the microphones are off.
Photo - B.C. legislature buildings generic
The B.C. legislature buildings in downtown Victoria.

It’s too bad people feel so constrained in public life that they speak much more frankly when the microphones are off.

Or when they think the microphones are off.

Because of that tendency, it was only inadvertently that the depths of the ill will in parliaments when auditor generals come calling came to light.

The association of Canadian presiding officers (Speakers and clerks) settled in to the legislative assembly chamber Friday for a panel discussion about audits. It quickly turned into a gripefest that revealed strong misgivings about the attitudes of the auditors and the impression their reports leave with the public.

They would never have come to light if the legislature hadn’t left the audio feed from the room open. So the proceedings were piped right to the desks of reporters in the adjacent press gallery.

It’s their legislature and their sound system. So if they send right to my desk, I feel obliged to share it.

Particularly when it’s a valid viewpoint that deserves to be heard.

Undergoing an audit is rarely pleasant, so you wouldn’t expect them to enjoy the experience. But the full extent of the distaste was made clear Friday.

B.C. legislature clerk Craig James’s remarks about the “boiling animosity” here after last year’s audit were covered on the weekend.

The most compelling outline of what it’s like for a parliamentary officer to be audited came from Audrey O’Brien, clerk of the House of Commons.

Based on her experience with a federal audit, she said: “Having spent two years with the people from the auditor general’s office, one has to wonder what a performance audit of their audit would reveal.”

The board of internal economy that runs the house was skeptical about the audit proposal, because it came soon after the U.K. scandal over MPs’ expenses, and similar smaller scandals in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland.

But O’Brien said: “Because [MPs] were portrayed in the media as being in a battle with Sheila Fraser, who was then the auditor general and basically an iconic Canadian for many reasons, this was not a battle they could win.”

So they went along with the exercise. (Michael Ferguson later succeeded Fraser.)

O’Brien was refreshingly candid about the experience: “We found we were locked in many cases in a kind of circle of hell that proved to be impossible to get out of.”

The auditors had expectations about procedures elsewhere in government that just weren’t applicable to the House of Commons.

MPs get budgets and rules about how to spend money.

“But they’re not exhaustive, nor do they infantilize members to the point where you’re told how every $5 gets to be spent, or what you get to have for lunch, or who you get to have lunch with,” she said.

“This is not any of our business as far as we’re concerned.”

The important things are simply to stay within the budget and follow the rules. “This did not prove difficult for them [the auditors] to understand, it proved impossible for them to understand,” she said.

There were a lot of semantic arguments about policy and conflicting recommendations about structures. O’Brien said there were some helpful recommendations about procurement and contracting.

But after two years of suspicious digging, they didn’t come up with much.

Summing up the auditors’ attitude toward elected officials, she told the audience: “I don’t know what it is that makes you people run — it’s got to be the most ungrateful position on the face of the earth.

“You could show up in a saffron robe and a begging bowl and you would still not be sufficiently humble to satisfy a good proportion of the critics.

“I say God bless you for running and putting up with this.”

The general impression left by the clerk is that auditors are zealous to the point of absurdity when it comes to scrutinizing politicians in parliamentary audits. Although there have been a few findings of wrongdoing over the years, audits are much more likely to find shortcomings that allow the potential for venality, rather than venality itself.

Just So You Know: The audit found most procurement contracts were out of compliance with various rules, which prompted some changes to the process. But after all the examination of MPs’ expenses, the audit concluded between 93 and 98 per cent met the various guidelines.