The House of Commons has approved a motion calling on Auditor-General Karen Hogan to investigate federal spending on the ArriveCan app.
The Bloc Québécois and the NDP voted in favour of the Conservative motion, while Liberal and Green Party MPs voted against. The final vote tally was 174 to 149.
The Wednesday afternoon vote followed Tuesday’s daylong debate on the motion, which was put forward by Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre.
The motion includes a preamble that says “the cost of government is driving up the cost of living” and calls on the government to “eliminate wasteful spending,” before recommending that the House call on the Auditor-General to conduct a performance audit of all aspects of the ArriveCan app, including payments, contracts and subcontracts.
Liberal MPs had indicated concern about the wording of the preamble.
Vincent Frigon, a spokesperson for the Auditor-General, said “the office carefully considers requests for audits from the House of Commons, the Senate and parliamentary committees.” In a statement, he said choosing topics for performance audits “is a complex and challenging exercise” and “the ultimate decision about what to audit rests with the Auditor General.”
The app was initially created as a way for travellers to upload mandatory health information for COVID-19 screening but has since been expanded to allow users to answer customs and immigration questions. As of Sept. 30, it is no longer mandatory but remains a voluntary option.
Since The Globe and Mail first reported that the cost to build and maintain the app is on pace to reach $54-million this year, the government has repeatedly faced questions on the matter in the House and the government operations committee has launched related hearings.
“We will find out the truth. The government will have to answer to Canadians,” Mr. Poilievre said Tuesday in the House. “At a time when Canadians are unable to pay their bills, it is an outrage to force them to pay $54-million for such a useless waste of money.”
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said in a statement to The Globe Wednesday that “there are serious questions about the overall cost of developing the ArriveCan app.” He noted that a committee recently approved a similar motion put forward by the NDP.
During Tuesday’s debate, opposition MPs focused heavily on the role of GCstrategies, the two-person company that has collected millions in commissions by winning federal IT contracts and then hiring subcontractors to do the work. GCstrategies received the most federal outsourcing work to build and maintain the ArriveCan app – about $9-million worth – but The Globe reported this week that it received a total of $46-million for a variety of federal contracts over the past six years.
As part of the committee study into the cost of the app, MPs heard last month from GCstrategies’ two partners, Darren Anthony and Kristian Firth. They said they charge a commission of 15 per cent to 30 per cent of the total value of federal contracts.
Bloc MP Nathalie Sinclair-Desgagné raised concerns about that commission during Tuesday’s debate.
“GCstrategies patriotically answered the call. The company said that of course it would help make Canadians safer in these troubled times and that it would find subcontractors capable of coding the app for a modest middleman’s fee of 15 per cent to 30 per cent of $9-million,” she said. “What were these people thinking? When I worked in the private sector, if I had suggested taking such a big cut simply for acting as an intermediary, I would not have kept my job for very long, but ‘a friend is a friend.’ ”
Similarly, NDP MP Taylor Bachrach said the biggest concern is the lack of transparency when it comes to how the app’s cost grew from an initial $80,000 to $54-million.
“We also know the government paid an IT staffing firm here in Ottawa nine million of those dollars. This is a firm that has no office, has only a handful of staff and did not actually do the work, but rather assembled a team of contractors and took a 15 per cent to 30 per cent commission. They were making millions of dollars off this,” he said.
During the debate, government ministers and MPs defended the app while acknowledging that the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) is currently conducting a review of the contracting costs.
“With regard to the investments in ArriveCan, at every critical stage we followed with great rigour the policies that were put in place when it came to procurement,” said Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino, who is responsible for the CBSA. “We made sure we could get value for taxpayer money when it came not only to the creation of this app but also, a distinction that is regrettably lost on the opposition, to the ongoing maintenance of the app.”
Liberal MP John Aldag said the government turned to GCstrategies in April, 2020, because the company was already approved to provide informatics professional services.
“The Government of Canada tapped into its expertise. This was done on an emergency basis using existing tools, and the app was developed and launched as quickly as possible during an unprecedented time in our history,” he said.
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