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(For The Globe and Mail)
(For The Globe and Mail)

Lawrence Martin

Where the heck’s that $3.1-billion? Where’s the fury? Add to ...

So is that it? There is $3.1-billion in government money unaccounted for, as Auditor-General Michael Ferguson reported some time ago. It just kind of flew off into the netherworld. And it seems most everyone has forgotten. As in, too bad taxpayer, nothing can be done.

You have to wonder, has there ever been so large a federal sum dematerialize like this? Will there be no inquiry? Will not one head roll – not a public servant’s, not a politician’s?

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The money was initially targeted for public security and anti-terrorism funding. There was $12.9-billion allocated. Only $9.8-billion has been accounted for. Mr. Ferguson asked the Treasury Board, which is supposed to track spending scrupulously, to explain the gap, to come up with some answers. It didn’t have any. It still doesn’t.

The Conservatives, who tout themselves as first-rate managers of the public purse, seem just to have brushed it off. They hoped, maybe in their wildest dreams, that the story would go away in a few days after the A-G’s revelation back in April. And that’s what happened.

“Amazing. The scale of this is unbelievable,” says former parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page, who always can be relied upon to hold the Conservatives’ feet to the fire. “Can you imagine, in a private-sector world, where $3-billion went missing and they went back to shareholders and said, ‘Ah, sorry, folks, but we don’t know where it is’?”

He suspects the billions “got sloshed all over the place” in various departments and those responsible for the money’s oversight lost track. It’s also quite possible the Conservatives have found out what happened with the money, Mr. Page says, but are just not owning up. Might be too damaging to do so.

The Auditor-General gave the Tories an out in his condemnatory report when he said he didn’t have any evidence to show the billions were used in an inappropriate manner. Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Treasury Board President Tony Clement have used this line to swat away opposition queries.

But Mr. Ferguson found no proof that the money wasn’t used improperly, either. It’s not like there isn’t precedence for this kind of thing. In the 2011 A-G’s report, it was revealed that $50-million from an $83-million border infrastructure fund was quietly diverted, without Parliament being informed, to pay for an olio of enhancement projects in the Huntsville, Ont., area, site of the G8 summit. One of the authors of the sham was the minister from the Huntsville region, Tony Clement.

Where is Mr. Clement now? He is President of the Treasury Board. After the G8 funding duplicity, Mr. Harper brazenly put Mr. Clement in charge of oversight of all government spending. For the flight of the $3.1-billion, Mr. Clement has offered no public apology. Nor has the Prime Minister.

As well as the politicians, says Mr. Page, you have to look at the public servants. “They are culpable.When money moves around like this, they have to know where it is. It’s their responsibility.”

It may well be the case that there is no political malfeasance or bureaucratic ill-intent in the affair. It may well be due to basic gaps in the accounting process. But that doesn’t let anyone off the hook. If your fiscal oversight is that inept, if there is no paper trail for such huge sums, if there is no accountability, it still ranks as scandalous.

Some of the spending on the anti-terrorism file, as Mr. Clement has pointed out, dates back to when the Liberals held the reins. That might explain why the Grits have hardly been aggressive on the matter. But the New Democrats say they haven’t forgotten and soon plan to move in hard on this file.

So they should. No government, especially one that stakes a claim to fiscal rectitude, should be allowed to get away with losing track of $3.1-billion.

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