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Retiring Fraser urges vigilance over watchdog's independence

Today's topics: missing Sheila Fraser; selecting Supreme Court justices; U.S. immigration; Lady Gaga ... and more

Sheila Fraser is nipping at the heels of the federal government to the very end, saying her successor must carefully protect the independence of the Office of the Auditor-General and its ability to criticize any misuse of public funds in Ottawa.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is waiting until the fall to appoint the next Auditor-General, but he will face political pressure to choose a watchdog who will match Ms. Fraser's ability to hammer home critical findings that force the government into action.

During a speech and a news conference that marked her last public appearances before her retirement on Monday, Ms. Fraser said the next Auditor-General will need to ensure the government responds quickly to calls for documents and financial data. She said she forced the government to change its rules and become more transparent in 2010, and that any setback would be unacceptable.

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Pointing to her 2002 and 2004 audits into the sponsorship scandal, Ms. Fraser added her office gained even more independence from the government during her 10-year tenure, and that preserving those gains must be top-of-mind for the next Auditor-General.

"Independence of the legislative audit office is absolutely critical to our credibility, so we have to be independent in fact, and in perception as well," Ms. Fraser told reporters. "We have to always be vigilant that there is no inappropriate interference from government… I think the office has to remain always vigilant to ensure that that independence is protected."

NDP MP Pat Martin said that officers of Parliament like the Auditor-General are even more important now that the Conservatives have won a majority and can impose their will in parliamentary committees. He said the new Auditor-General will need to offer integrity, independence and impartiality.

"With a Conservative majority in the House of Commons and the Senate, it will be even more critical for that person to provide oversight and scrutiny of the government," Mr. Martin said.

Ms. Fraser will already be retired when her interim successor, deputy auditor-general John Wiersema, tables her last remaining audits on June 7, including the report into the discretionary spending that surrounded last year's G8 and G20 summits.

She said the government will likely recommend a new Auditor-General in the fall who will face scrutiny of parliamentarians before taking over.

For now, Ms. Fraser will take six months to decide on any future career, although she made it clear she feels Auditors-General should "fade away" from public view after they retire. Still, she ended off her career in Ottawa with a bang, slamming the government's failure to improve the well-being of natives living on reserves.

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"Not only have living conditions not improved, they have gotten worse," she said.

Ms. Fraser said a series of audits have done nothing to fix problems afflicting natives, and that laws must be changed to make it clear who is responsible for matters like education and to ensure stable funding.

"It's actually quite tragic when you see there is a population in this country that does not have basic services that most Canadians take for granted," she said, pointing to things like graduation rates that are way below those in the rest of the country. "Those sort of conditions are just unbelievable in a country as rich as Canada."

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