Time For AG to Show Teeth

Premier Selinger has bragged that his government allows the provincial Auditor General to undertake “value-for-money” audits. Such audits, first promoted by a long-retired federal Auditor General, involve comprehensive and independent reviews of governmental transactions and situations. The audits are intended to determine whether taxpayers are ‘well served’ with respect to matters having significant implications, whether the subject matter is backed by policies or not.

An independent value-for-money audit of transactions of the provincial government and its agencies involving First Nations is long overdue. While responsibility for First Nation and Inuit residents living in reserves rests primarily with the federal government, over the 16-years of NDP rule the government has spent billions of provincial tax dollars on First Nations, providing special services and making massive infrastructure investments, driving up taxes and utility rates in the process.

Successive Auditor Generals have avoided the file. What is the value for taxpayers of having a provincial Auditor General if that office spends its time on matters of less import than files that involve government policies and priorities?

Recently, the behaviour of the Premier and a Cabinet Minister related to a controversial flood-fighting contract has come under question. The Cabinet Minister came third in the NDP’s recent leadership vote and then freed his supporters to vote for the surviving Premier who subsequently brought the Minister back into Cabinet.

This Cabinet Minister apparently lobbied for an untendered contract for his outside-government friends associated with a company that ended up supplying a First Nation with expensive materials. That the federal government ended up paying for the contract does not absolve those involved in highly questionable behaviour.

There are other elements of this tawdry business that cry out for an independent review. For instance, it was Acting Ombudsman Mel Holley who brought the matter to the attention of the Premier, following up on a whistleblower complaint from within the government’s own bureaucracy. Now, the Cabinet Minister and the Premier, looking for a way out, would have the Ombudsman again review the affair. But, the now-Ombudsman is not Mr. Holley, he having been replaced after having faithfully met his responsibilities. Why was Holley replaced? Was he pushed out with another confidential departure gift to get him conveniently out of this simmering picture?

Meanwhile, the Auditor General was confirmed recently in the position he had filled on an acting basis for over two years. Was Holley considered a risk to government with the newly confirmed Auditor General pronounced ‘safe’? Before being confirmed in his position, did the government seek assurances that, if he was made permanent, would continue to avoid taking on reviews of important policy-driven files? Did government seek to buy continued ‘inaction’?

Whatever the outcome of this sordid business, the policy shackles on the Auditor General should be tossed and he should immediately prepare to conduct a comprehensive and fully independent value-for-money review/audit of the provincial government’s actions with respect to First Nations. The review should consider conflict-of-interest issues and include the actions and commitments of Hydro and other government agencies, particularly as to hydro dams and transmission lines, contracts for bush clearing, road construction, etc.

 

Graham Lane, a retired chartered accountant, is Chair of  Manitoba Forward.