Auditor-General Michael Ferguson is blasting the government for refusing to provide him with key financial information, saying the lack of transparency prevented him from completing an audit on the elimination of fossil fuel subsidies.
The Office of the Auditor-General has been scrapping with the federal government over access to documents and data since the 1980s. However, the current dispute with the Liberal government is the biggest of Mr. Ferguson's six-year-old tenure.
"Getting access to information is fundamental to the independence of an Auditor-General," Mr. Ferguson said at a news conference on Tuesday. "Whenever we run into this type of a situation, where we can't tell you whether a department has done what it is supposed to because we weren't provided the information, that is an extremely concerning situation."
In response to the Auditor-General's report, a number of Liberal ministers promised to follow his recommendations, including facilitating access to sensitive information for future audits.
"Greater transparency and openness in government helps strengthen Canadians' trust in our public institutions," said Treasury Board president Scott Brison.
But the opposition said the government is simply paying lip service to these principles.
"The Liberals' refusal to provide information to the Auditor-General strikes at the heart of accountability and makes a farce of their promise of openness and transparency," said NDP MP David Christopherson.
The latest dispute centred around Finance Canada's role in phasing out tax measures that constitute "inefficient" subsidies to the fossil-fuel industry. Mr. Ferguson said he simply couldn't come up with definitive conclusions on the government's ability and willingness to fulfill its G20 commitment by 2025.
Finance Minister Bill Morneau insisted the government was on track to meet its targets. He added there is a new cabinet directive that will open up budgetary information, such as the one that was denied in this case, to future audits.
"Actually allowing the Auditor-General to see our budget analysis, from the budget documents that we work through in order to get to our budget conclusions, that is what we decided to do," Mr. Morneau told reporters. "That will be helpful, we believe, for the Auditor-General in the future."
In another report, the Auditor-General found that 20 per cent of RCMP members who seek mental-health treatment never return to active duty or are simply discharged from the force. The finding raised questions about the quality of the treatment and care offered to Mounties who are involved in traumatic incidents, such as shootings and standoffs.
"The RCMP is only as strong as its members. If the organization does not effectively manage members' mental health and fulfill its responsibilities to support their return to work, members struggle to carry out their duties, their confidence in the RCMP may be undermined, and the RCMP's effectiveness may be reduced," the Auditor-General said in his report.
By offering inefficient treatments, the RCMP is effectively deterring members from admitting they are suffering from mental-health issues, which could worsen their conditions in the long run, the report added.
The RCMP is already under fire over its inability to deal with long-standing workplace-harassment issues, prompting Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale to contemplate placing the force under greater civilian management. One of the goals of increased civilian management would be to ensure that programs such as health services are under the responsibility of outside experts rather than senior police officers.
RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson has rejected any link between the force's management structure and its ability to deal with issues such as harassment. However, Mr. Goodale continued to suggest on Tuesday that major reforms might be needed for the RCMP to deal with issues such as harassment and mental health.
"We expect those deficiencies to be remedied. If additional external assistance or structural change is required to accomplish that objective, we will make it," Mr. Goodale told reporters.
In an audit into customs duties, the Auditor-General raised questions about the rules by which the government raises more than $5-billion a year from importers of goods. For the most part, the system is based on a self-assessment process by importers, who are in a position to "circumvent the rules to their own advantage." In a series of verifications in 2015-16, the Canada Border Services Agency identified $42-million in lost revenue.
On the issue of temporary foreign workers, the Auditor-General found that the government approved applications from companies that "had not demonstrated reasonable efforts to train existing employees or hire unemployed Canadians."
The program was increasingly part of various companies' business model, according to the Auditor-General, which explained why the government needed to ensure that access to foreign workers was an exception and not the rule.
"It is important for employers to make more efforts to hire and train Canadian workers and to use the program only as intended – as a last resort," the report said.
At the news conference, Mr. Ferguson said he was concerned with the hiring of foreign caregivers and fish-plant workers when Canadian employees could perform the work. The number of temporary foreign workers stood at 90,000 in 2015, down from 163,000 in 2013.