Misled. The Auditor-General report's may not use the word, but that's what the federal government did to Parliament, and therefore to Canadians, by spending $50-million of public money in the Muskoka region of Ontario for the 2010 G8 summit, and calling it "investments in infrastructure to reduce border congestion." Governments always play fiscal shell games, so why be moved to outrage this time?
First, even by standards of the cynic, the process was brazenly irregular. Muskoka is hundreds of kilometres from any border - a conveniently available existing line item was used as cover for the unrelated spending. There was no documentation around the choice of the 32 projects, which included new logistics centres that performed no G8-related logistics, new runways for airports where no G8-related planes landed, and gazebos and other goodies of marginal connection to the G8, all in Tony Clement's riding.
Second, it put good public administration at the mercy of politics. Some modest tweaking of any kind of government spending for political gain is to be expected. But professional public servants ought, at least, to be at the table, to bring some rigour to the process. Instead, they were absent. The report does little to dispel a picture of Mr. Clement and then-infrastructure minister John Baird, two experienced ministers who should have known better, sitting down together, alone, to pick projects.
Third, think of the findings not just retrospectively, but prospectively. This is the government that wants to cut $11-billion in program spending over four years. It has set up a formal strategic review, but will it act with self-discipline to make sure that the G8 infrastructure spending process does not repeat itself? And is it going to make spending truly transparent, or will it still empower itself to move around tens of millions of dollars at the stroke of a pen, with no disclosure?
Finally, until the Auditor-General came along, the government's other watchdogs had fallen asleep. The government is right on one point: This whole affair was hidden in plain sight. The $50-million program was announced in February, 2009, and the offending mislabeling of parliamentary appropriations took place in November, 2009. By following the money (and seeing where the trail stopped), a diligent MP could have sounded the alarm.
This is an opportunity for a reform of government policies around spending oversight and disclosure. The government's reputation for fiscal prudence depends on such a reform.