Transport Minister Marc Garneau says he's "not happy" with the financial situation of his department and is vowing to fix the problem without sacrificing the department's key role in protecting the safety of Canadians.
But unions representing Transport Canada inspectors warn that ongoing restraint is putting safety at risk and that many of the staffing problems identified by the Auditor-General more than two years ago remain unaddressed.
Speaking for the first time since The Globe and Mail reported Wednesday that his department has been placed under special oversight by the Treasury Board over spending concerns, Mr. Garneau confirmed that he agreed to the arrangement in order to help get the books in order.
"This is as a result of things that happened under the previous government," he told reporters on Parliament Hill. "It's a difficult financial situation. I'm not happy with it. I'm going to fix it, because we owe it to Canadian taxpayers to make sure that we do things properly. But I can tell you right now that it's not going to have any impact whatsoever with respect to safety and security."
The Globe reported Wednesday that Treasury Board has assigned a former chief financial officer to work at Transport Canada after the department repeatedly missed internal spending targets. The Auditor-General raised concerns in the fall of 2013 with the number of inspectors at the department but officials had repeatedly fallen short in their efforts to hire more staff.
The department appears to have overcompensated for this in the first quarter of the fiscal year that started April 1, 2015, hiring more staff than the department's budget would allow. That forced the department into making a series of spending-restraint decisions.
Wednesday's Globe report came the same day that Mr. Garneau and his senior officials were scheduled for a two-hour appearance before the Commons transportation committee to answer questions from MPs about the department's budget.
At committee, NDP MP Linda Duncan told the minister she was "stunned" to read about Treasury Board's new role and expressed concern with funding levels for transportation safety.
Mr. Garneau told MPs he gave his "100-per-cent support" to Treasury Board's intervention.
"My team is totally on board with that," he said. "We want to make sure that at some point the person overseeing us from Treasury Board says 'fine, everything's okay.'"
Christine Collins, national president of the Union of Transportation Employees, said the appointment of a "Big Brother" from Treasury Board will be damaging to the morale of Transport Canada employees, who she says were simply following orders from the Conservative government to hire more staff but who did not receive extra money to cover the cost.
Ms. Collins says the Treasury Board appointment sends the message that Transport Canada staff are irresponsible and can't do their jobs.
"I'm not happy that this has all come down on the employees of Transport Canada when it was a political decision. They should have put their money where their mouth was. That's the bottom line," she said.
Greg McConnell, who represents Transport Canada inspectors as national chairman of the Canadian Federal Pilots Association, said there is no evidence on the ground that the staffing issues identified in 2013 by the Auditor-General have been addressed.
"My members are telling me that we've got vacancies everywhere and because we've got vacancies everywhere, inspections aren't being completed," he said. As a result, Mr. McConnell said he disagrees with the minister's claim that safety and security are not affected by the department's financial situation.
"If inspections aren't being carried out, then that couldn't be accurate," he said.
The current fiscal year, which ends March 31, began under the Conservatives and concludes under the current Liberal government. Both sides were blaming each other for the situation Wednesday.
"I would certainly say that it really is a last resort to have the Treasury Board directly administer your department. That's clearly a sign that something has gone terribly wrong," said Conservative MP Tony Clement, president of the Treasury Board in the Conservative government. "Treasury Board's responsibility is to, on an ongoing basis, have that continuing dialogue with each department to make sure that they are meeting the fiscal mandates of each department. So clearly in the last six months I would say that something has gone terribly wrong."