It takes no more than 48 hours canoeing in the backcountry before Nova Scotia Auditor-General Jacques Lapointe has forgotten the stresses of his job. There are probably a lot of people in the province's NDP government who wish he would stay there.
Mr. Lapointe sparked a torrent of public outrage earlier this year when he exposed inappropriate, unregulated and secretive spending by politicians of all parties. The embarrassed governing party, which had campaigned a year earlier on greater transparency, moved to fix the problems he identified.
And Wednesday he did it again, accusing the government of a "pervasive policy of secrecy" that had stopped him from doing his job. Mr. Lapointe said difficulties getting information from government dated to the previous administration, but never before had he been unable to perform an audit.
It was a political grenade that forced the NDP to scramble again into damage-control mode. Legislation giving the auditor more access will come this fall, promised Finance Minister Graham Steele, who had decried government stonewalling while in opposition.
In an expansive interview at his office near Citadel Hill, the soft-spoken Mr. Lapointe stressed that he does not seek to embarrass politicians. But he's well aware that it can take public pressure before anything changes in government.
"I don't want to make government quake, I want them to pay attention," he said.
Mr. Lapointe, 62, grew up a keen outdoorsman in Kirkland Lake, in Northern Ontario, and worked in construction and as a bartender before returning to school. A graduate of the University of Toronto, he was in private practice as an accountant, then took a job as internal auditor with the Ontario government.
He started his current role in March of 2006.
"If we only have so many hours a year we can put in, where can we have the biggest impact, make the biggest difference?" he said Wednesday when asked how he approached his 10-year term. "And I thought that's in the programs that actually affect people. The ones that put people at risk. If they work well, some people out there will get way better service from government, and if it goes wrong they could be hurt by it."
Beyond the lure of the job, Halifax's compactness appealed to him, as did its sociable people and proximity to the countryside. Mr. Lapointe is a French-Canadian with native roots, and the walls of his office display a print of a canoe and several pieces of Ojibway art among the many professional certificates. He delights in taking off with his wife on multi-portage trips in the backcountry.
While at work, though, Mr. Lapointe focuses on the task at hand and will not offer an opinion on matters outside his jurisdiction. Asked, for example, about the showdown in Ottawa over the federal auditor's access to MP expense details, and he said he couldn't comment.
And with his non-renewable term nearly half over, he said he has given no thought to his next role. There's too much work to do in the meantime.
In his latest report, Mr. Lapointe drew attention to problems with contaminated sites, as well as abysmal rates of meeting mental-health standards, so low he warned it "could negatively impact" patient care.
In a Catch 22-style twist, he also said he could not assess a new initiative aimed at improving accountability within health care because information about it was deemed confidential. Most explosively, the auditor said he was unable to audit Nova Scotia Business Inc. and the Industrial Expansion Fund because government staff refused to release information it claimed was covered by cabinet confidentiality or solicitor-client privilege. These two entities together doled out $255-million last year.
"The basic principle of public accountability has been violated," Mr. Lapointe told legislators Wednesday morning. "Ultimately, the authority and responsibility for these decisions rests with cabinet."
Opposition politicians delighted in digging up instances in which the NDP had urged the previous government to release just this sort of information.
The response was quick. Insisting his position hadn't changed, although allowing that governing is a more complex role than opposition, Mr. Steele pledged new legislation that will provide for greater openness.
"We simply had other priorities and clearly the Auditor-General has our attention today," he told reporters. "We are going to deal with this and we are going to resolve it."