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Auditor-General Sheila Fraser speaks during a news conference in Ottawa on March 31, 2009. (Blair Gable/REUTERS)
Auditor-General Sheila Fraser speaks during a news conference in Ottawa on March 31, 2009. (Blair Gable/REUTERS)

C.E.S. Franks

What the Auditor-General can do Add to ...

A year ago, federal Auditor-General Sheila Fraser proposed to the all-party Board of Internal Economy of the House of Commons that it invite her to audit the House. Last week, the board rejected her request, saying her proposed audit would "go well beyond the scope of the Auditor-General's mandate, which allows her to audit government departments and various Crown agencies as identified in the [Auditor-General's]Act," and isn't needed because the Commons already has external auditors who report that "appropriate oversight practices and procedures are in place."

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These assertions are not correct.

The auditor-general has the power to audit Parliament. Contrary to what the board claims, the act does not identify the government departments and agencies the auditor-general is permitted to audit. The terms of the act are more general, and state unequivocally that "the Auditor-General is the auditor of the accounts of Canada, including those relating to the Consolidated Revenue Fund." Parliament is funded out of the Consolidated Revenue Fund. Consequently, Parliament's accounts, like those of other departments and agencies funded through taxes, can by statute be examined by the auditor-general.

The first audit of the House of Commons by an auditor-general was begun in 1979 by auditor-general J.J. Macdonell at the request of speaker James Jerome. Mr. Macdonell made the alarming discovery that "the quality of general and financial administration [of the House]was significantly below a minimum acceptable standard." Acting auditor-general Michael Rayner reported to the Commons on this audit in 1980, and Mr. Jerome's successor, Jeanne Sauvé, vigorously pursued reform of House management. In 1983, auditor-general Kenneth Dye reported that, while the management of the Commons had been greatly improved, there was still some way to go. In 1991, Mr. Dye reported on the administration of the Senate. In November, 1991, auditor-general Denis Desautels reported on the administration of the Commons. All these audits were supported by the appropriate management committee of the Senate and Commons.

With the help of successive auditors-general, the administration of the House of Commons progressively improved over this period. The audit proposed by Ms. Fraser in 2009 would have been the next logical step. It was to be expected that it would have found that the management of the House is still much improved but needs further improvement.

The audit would not duplicate work already done for the House by KPMG. Although the Board of Internal Economy claims that the current audit provides assurance on systems, there is no mention of systems in the KPMG reports. Its audits do not provide assurance that policies and procedures are appropriate or followed.

The audit proposed by Ms. Fraser would go beyond financial administration and could include examination of the House's management of human resources, information technology, security arrangements and other administrative matters. These sorts of management aspects are not covered by the current KPMG audit. They are, however, parts of the performance audits conducted by the Auditor-General.

A detailed examination of members' expenses is not part of the performance audit proposed by Ms. Fraser. Her audit would involve spot checks to see if the rules and policies of the House are being followed. But, based on experience, there is every reason to believe that this spot check would find few problems. The rules and procedures governing MPs' expenses would be examined as part of the performance audit, but, again, it is unlikely that the audit would find any serious problems with them.

When Mr. Macdonell made his audit in 1979, Parliament spent less than $100-million each year. It now spends more than half a billion. Ms. Fraser's audit would identify problem areas in House administration. Even more important, it would assure parliamentarians and Canadians alike that Parliament is being well managed. The decision of the Board of Internal Economy to refuse her request denies both Parliament and the Canadian public this assurance. It needs to be reconsidered.

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