Mr. Claude Lanthier (LaSalle):
Mr. Speaker, it was very interesting to hear what was said in the House about when, and especially how, the Auditor General should report the results of his audits. Mr. Speaker, as you know, I myself had some problems with the tabling of certain investigations by the Auditor General, but on the whole, I would say that in 1980, the previous Government, lethargic though it was, supported the Public Accounts Committee which had recommended that the Auditor General report more frequently.
July 18, 1988
Auditor General Act
Between 1980 and 1984, nothing happened, owing to the lethargy of the previous Government, as I just said.
Since then, however, our Government made recommendations in 1984, in 1986 and even this year, in 1988, to improve the situation. We are not afraid of the Public Accounts Committee or the Auditor General's reports. In fact we support them. However, the Auditor General himself, Mr. Kennet Dye, recommended on several occasions that the Auditor General's Act should be amended to allow him to report immediately on certain specific audits, right after completion. He made the point that this would speed up work in his office and improve efficiency. At various times, all parties represented in this House supported at least the principle that amendments were necessary to authorize the Auditor General to report more frequently and on a completion basis.
The reasons in favor of such changes were that tabling of reports immediately upon completion of audits would give the Public Accounts Committee and parliamentarians a better chance to discuss the issues involved while they were still very current and thus corrective action could be taken far more quickly and more effectively.
I would like to point out that the purpose of this Bill is not to table reports on very urgent matters. The Auditor General may at any time make such reports, Mr. Speaker. There is no limitation on the subject matter of such reports. Today, however, we are talking about questions that are not judged by the Public Accounts Committee to be of vital importance or extremely urgent.
It is claimed that this change advocated by this Bill would have the advantage that the public servants called to testify before the Public Accounts Committee would more likely be those involved when the Auditor General made his observations. That is true, Mr. Speaker. However, I sincerely do not believe that the turnover is significant enough for this Bill to apply, It is believed that all these changes will make the Government more accountable to Parliament and thereby to the taxpayers, which is an objective that we all support.
Nevertheless, it is obvious that in spite of the support expressed for changes that at first seem simple and uncomplicated, there has not been unanimous support in this House for the changes proposed to the Auditor General Act. As with many issues brought up in this House, I believe that this question is more complex, much more complicated than people seem to think. Personally, I see some negative effects that could result from it and far outweigh the advantages described.
As I see it, the question we must really ask is what the impact of these changes will be on the Auditor General's effectiveness. I would not want to support changes that would in any way compromise the effectiveness of the Auditor General's Office by imposing on him a host of complications that would make his work more difficult.
The issue of the efficiency with which the Auditor General's Office can produce its reports is in reality secondary. The cost is relatively insignificant compared to the fantastic savings that result from the Auditor General's work. We would not want to compromise his effectiveness for relatively unimportant savings. It has been recognized for a long time that the Auditor General should have the resources he needs to do his job effectively and freely.
Mr. Speaker, in my mind there is no doubt that the Auditor General and the Public Accounts Committee do important work. In fact, when this matter was discussed in the House last October, the Hon. Member for Selkirk-Interlake (Mr. Holtmann) pointed out quite rightly that the Auditor General's findings have become more encouraging and that he recognizes that progress has been made in solving the problems described in previous reports. Mr. Speaker, it clearly follows that our Government is responding well to the recommendations of the Auditor General and the Public Accounts Committee. And before anyone accuses me of being partisan-I certainly am not and I hope I did not give that impression-I think Hon. Members should compare the present tone of the reports to those tabled in the early eighties.
Mr. Speaker, the Auditor General has never been as laudatory in his comments as he has been since this Government came to power in 1984. Previously, the Auditor General's reports were a catastrophe for all Canadians. Our policies have been revamped, and we welcome his reports instead of hiding from reporters when the reports are tabled, which was the case between 1980 and 1984, Mr. Speaker.
I think the system works very well, and in fact it is improving, and that is what we are here for. I agree that completion-based reporting would make it possible to obtain the conclusions several months earlier. However, that alone would not resolve the problem of timeless, if there is such a problem. It is a fact that in many cases, carrying out a comprehensive audit within a department may take up to two years.
In any case, Mr. Speaker, in Parliament and in the departments, we welcome the Auditor General's comments which make it possible for us to improve the situation as we go along, without having to wait for the final results several years later. Mr. Speaker, this new approach to government is that of a businessman who has been involved in politics and not of politicians who think they can do business, as was the case with the previous Government.
We must not forget that audit results are discussed with management as they are drafted. In government, managers must deal with problems on a priority basis as soon as they are brought to their attention. They cannot wait until the final report. Corrective action is generally taken well before the annual report is tabled.
Mr. Speaker, this is a new approach. It is ongoing management and no longer disaster management as was the case before.
July 18, 1988
Under the new system of increased departmental authority and responsibility established by Treasury Board, ministers and senior officals are even more strictly accountable for the measures they take to correct deficiencies in the management of taxpayers' money, and for doing so as they are detected, instead of letting them go on for a couple of years and waiting until the final report to apologize for past mistakes, after officials have left or politicians have been replaced. That was the old way which our businessmen's government cannot accept.
There already are mechanisms to ensure that attention is given quickly to matters of a pressing nature raised by the Auditor General. In fact, the Auditor General, as I said earlier, already has the authority to bring urgent questions to the attention of the House, and to do so at any time. He is not prohibited from speaking out before he tables his final report. He may, at any time, draw the attention of the Prime Minister and Parliament to any matter he deems appropriate.
Mr. Speaker, I believe nevertheless that it may not be advisable to table audit results automatically, upon completion. It is reasonable to suppose that the Auditor General would be given a short-term investigative function that could be used to fuel the controversies of the day. The risk would increase if Bill C-271, allowing standing committees to ask the Auditor General to examine specific questions, were adopted. The Auditor General might then have to investigate some questions that would impede him in carrying out his heavy responsibilities.
Mr. Speaker, the Auditor General must still have the right to choose what he considers pertinent to investigate and not simply accede to all the frivolous requests from sensationseeking Opposition parties.
Mr. Speaker, we have a high quality audit bureau that reports to Parliament and it seems to me that we should look very closely at the consequences of the proposed changes to the Auditor General Act before implementing them. Mr. Speaker, I believe that this Bill is unacceptable because of the lack of measures in it to preserve the Auditor General's independence.
Mr. Speaker, in this whole matter, we must judge the operations of the Auditor General on the basis of the powers conferred by our party since we took power and the responses we make to the deficiencies that he has discovered in our system. We do not wait four or five years or two years or for an election before realizing that things are not right. We correct them as we go along and we intend to continue to do so like the good businessmen we have always been.
Topic: GOVERNMENT ORDERS
Subtopic: PRIVATE MEMBERS' BUSINESS-BILLS AUDITOR GENERAL ACT MEASURE TO AMEND