The Auditor-General will study Ottawa’s support for temporary foreign workers during COVID-19 and the government’s management of personal protective equipment in her first round of audits on the Liberals’ response to the pandemic.
Separate Globe and Mail investigations have found that Ottawa’s protective equipment stockpiles were ill-prepared for the pandemic and that lax oversight, poor communication and cramped, dirty conditions have left migrant farm workers across Canada vulnerable to COVID-19.
In an interview with The Globe on Tuesday, Auditor-General Karen Hogan said her office chose the first slate of COVID-related programs based on their dollar values and their effects on Canadians, among other criteria.
Ms. Hogan’s team will also conduct audits on the $2,000 monthly benefit paid to Canadians who lost their jobs during the pandemic (called the Canada Emergency Response Benefit), the federal wage subsidy, the government’s pandemic preparedness and border controls. She said those audits would make up the first group of examinations on the government’s response to the novel coronavirus, with others on the pandemic and related programming in future years.
“We felt these were the most important topics to cover off in the first year,” she said.
For the audits focused on COVID-19, Ms. Hogan said her office will also switch how it releases the reports: Instead of publishing them once all are complete, they will be tabled in Parliament as they are ready.
She said the change is being made in the hopes that it will allow the government to adjust course, where needed, while responding to a possible second wave of the pandemic. Ms. Hogan said she hopes the first reports will be ready early in the new year.
In the case of personal protective equipment, Ms. Hogan said her office would study the stockpiling of vital gear for front-line workers, as well as its procurement and distribution during the pandemic.
In April, The Globe reported that a month before the pandemic, the Public Health Agency of Canada didn’t have enough protective equipment stockpiled to meet Ontario’s needs for one week at the height of the pandemic, let alone the rest of the provinces and territories.
Officials also said the agency did not have a target for the levels of gear that should be maintained in the stockpile, did not know what level of stockpiles the provinces and territories had, and did not advise lower-level governments about how much should be stockpiled.
“The stockpile for sure is going to be a focal point” of the audit, Ms. Hogan said.
In an interview with The Globe last month, Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough acknowledged shortcomings in the temporary foreign workers program. She said Ottawa will overhaul the program, and that in terms of the scope, “nothing is off the table.”
The Auditor-General said “protecting our front-line workers, and worrying about Canada’s food supply,” were among the reasons her office chose to audit that area.
Ms. Hogan, who was appointed to the watchdog job in June, is taking over the office at a tumultuous time. She said budget constraints and an increase in her office’s mandate mean she has had to scale back performance audits of government programs. And since the pandemic, even more oversight responsibilities have been added to the office’s to-do list.
She has repeated her predecessors’ calls for a $10.8-million increase to the office’s $88.2-million budget, and the office is in the midst of revising upward their funding request because the shortfall has grown.
“I sense an openness,” Ms. Hogan said about the government’s appetite to increase her budget.
In a brief statement the Finance Minister’s office said the government is ”committed to supporting the important work of the Auditor-General,” but it did not say whether it would increase the office’s budget.
With reports from Kathryn Blaze-Baum and Tavia Grant.