IN THE NEWS ~ MPs don't want AG to conduct random audits on House, NDP slams move

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by Laura Ryckewaert, The Hill Times

MPs refuse to give the auditor general the power to conduct random audits on the House and MPs' expenses, but the NDP is slamming the move.

"This process now where the AG has to be invited in, it's sort of a type of self-policingif MPs feel comfortable they can invite in the auditor general. The auditor general has an important role to play and has to play it independently," said Peter Julian (Burnaby-New Westminster, B.C.). "He or she should have the right to go in and audit the books."

Mr. Julian, who introduced a motion in June for the Procedure and House Affairs Committee to look at whether to replace the House's secretive Commons Board of Internal Economy management committee, said that the committee failed to move the House toward transparency in recommending in its report that the auditor general should just do more audits but offered no details or commitments to explicitly add the House to the AG's mandate.

"I think the Conservatives and Liberals didn't feel comfortable with just admitting, straight-up, that they were refusing the auditor general in, they tried to couch some language that would make it look like they are open to the auditor general coming in more often," he said.

On Dec. 2, the Procedure and House Affairs Committee tabled a report on its review of the board. The committee recommended that the BOIE further consider how to enhance MPs' expenditure reports by disclosing more information, that the auditor general be invited by the BOIE to conduct audits "with greater frequency," that the BOIE consult the AG's office to develop public guidelines for auditing House of Commons spending, and that the BOIE continue to make meeting minutes publicly available "in a timely manner."

The report said the committee didn't believe the AG's mandate should be modified "with respect the House of Commons," but said "nonetheless" invitations to the AG to audit the House should "become more frequent."

"The committee is also of the opinion that the Board of Internal Economy should work with the auditor general to undertake mandatory performance audits of the House of Commons administration every three years and develop guidelines under which the auditor general will be invited to perform more detailed audits of House of Commons' spending. These guidelines should be made public," reads the report.

In his testimony before the committee on Nov. 19, Auditor General Michael Ferguson said auditing the House of Commons would provide independent oversight and would improve public confidence. He suggested the committee consider amending the auditor general's mandate so the right to conduct such audits is clearly stated in law as being at the AG's discretion.

Mr. Ferguson said the AG's office is willing to take on a mandate to audit the House of Commons without additional resources, but said without more resources there would be an opportunity costs that would affect other audits done by the office.

Conservative MP Tom Lukiwski (Regina-Lumsden-Lake Centre, Sask.), a member of the House Affairs Committee, said the current system of inviting the AG in to audit the House of Commons has worked well.

"The AG has been invited to do random audits of members' expenses over the years, and every time that those audits have been performed they've come back, the AG has been satisfied that members have been conducting their business and reporting their expenses and claiming expenses in a proper manner," he said.

In June 2012, the AG's office tabled its performance audits of the House of Commons and Senate administrations, which included an examination of the financial management processes of both Chambers. The process to conduct these performance audits of Parliament's administrative began in 2010 under former auditor general Sheila Fraser who fought a lengthy battle to be invited to audit the House of Commons and Senate administrations, and ultimately MPs bowed to public pressure and flip-flopped on their initial decision not to let the AG in.

However, these performance audits of Parliament's administration were the first of their kind in 20 years, as was reported at the time, and otherwise the only external audits of the House of Commons are the annual audits done by KPMG of the House of Commons' financial statements, which is a brief audit of large aggregated figures breaking down the Houses' overall expenses, part of which are the Members' Office Budgets for Parliament's 308 MPs. The House of Commons' budget for the 2013-14 fiscal year is $428.77-million, according to the main estimates.

Liberal MP Kevin Lamoureux (Winnipeg North, Man.) said he's "very pleased" with the committee's recommendations with regard to the AG, and said having more and regular audits by the AG is "a positive thing."

He said he's not concerned that the question of an AG audit of the House of Commons rests with the secretive Board of Internal Economy.

"Where there was a consensus it is believed that action will follow," said Mr. Lamoureux. "It's all about establishing public confidence in what it is that we're doing and we can do that better if we push for results quick. So that's what my expectations would be of our Liberal representative on the Board of Internal Economy and any sort of legislative requirements that might come out of this particular support we would be very supportive of quick implementation."

But Duff Conacher, founder of Democracy Watch, said the auditor general doesn't need to, and shouldn't, wait for an invitation from Parliament to audit individual MPs expenseshe should "just start doing the audits and dare MPs and the Board of Internal economy to defy him."

Mr. Conacher said the Auditor General Act gives the AG the "general power to audit anything" coming from the Consolidated Revenue Fund of Canada, "which everything does," including Parliament's budget and MPs expenses. Mr. Conacher said in waiting for an invitation to audit Parliament's books, Canada's federal AG isn't acting like a watchdog.

"If he would just announce that he was going to be doing a random audit, just that alone would clean things up enormously because everyone would be afraid that they would be chosen as one of the random people to be audited," said Mr. Conacher.

In an email to The Hill Times, the Auditor General's office said it doesn't list the agencies and department "to which our mandate applies," and pointed out that under section five of the AG Act, the AG is the "auditor of the accounts of Canada."

"These accounts include amounts received and expended by the House of Commons and Senate. However, given our distinct relationship with the HoC and Senate, we have adopted the practice of requesting an invitation before commencing an audit," explained a spokesperson for the office in an email.

The office said on Dec. 5 it had not yet been contacted by the BOIE to discuss the development of public guidelines for inviting the auditor general to audit the House of Commons' books.

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The Hill Times

Online: http://www.hilltimes.com/news/news/2013/12/09/mps-dont-want-ag-to-conduct-random-audits-on-house-ndp-slams-move/36889