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Passengers who recently arrived at Toronto Pearson International Airport on Oct. 15, 2021.Fred Lum/the Globe and Mail

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre says MPs in other parties should have voted against ArriveCan’s growing costs when they had the chance, pointing to millions of dollars worth of specific spending items tied to the government app that Parliament approved during the pandemic.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Mr. Poilievre also said a future Conservative government would bring in “a discipline of scarcity” so that ministers and their officials apply closer scrutiny to spending decisions in areas such as outsourcing for IT consultants.

With Parliament set to resume Monday after a one-week recess, the Conservative Leader is planning to highlight the fact that MPs twice held votes on spending that included specific references to ArriveCan.

The first was a $12,377,000 entry contained in supplementary estimates that were approved in a Dec. 9, 2021, vote that transferred funds from the Public Health Agency of Canada to the Canada Border Services Agency for ArriveCan. The second entry, worth $12,411,091 for the CBSA, was described as “operating and capital expenditures for the design of the ArriveCan application.” It was approved in a March 24, 2022, vote.

For the next fiscal year, the 2022 budget included $25-million for “maintaining the ArriveCan application.”

“In some of the cases the word ArriveCan is right there in the estimates. It stuck out like a sore thumb,” said Mr. Poilievre. The Conservatives are launching a video to highlight that the Liberals, Bloc Québécois and NDP all supported those votes, while the Conservatives voted against.

The House of Commons regularly votes throughout the year on spending estimates, which are the formal way in which Parliament approves government spending. Government MPs almost always vote in favour and the Official Opposition almost always votes against. The Conservative video aims to highlight that the Bloc and the NDP sided with the minority Liberals to approve specific spending on ArriveCan.

“We opposed ArriveCan from the very beginning. At the outset, our opposition was focused more on the impracticality and the loss of civil liberties that the app entailed,” he said.

The ArriveCan app was created in early 2020 at the onset of the pandemic as a way for travellers to upload mandatory contact and health information to present when crossing the border. It was updated numerous times as health rules changed. The app is no longer mandatory as of Sept. 30, 2022, but remains a voluntary option. In the summer of 2022, a problem with the app caused about 10,200 Apple device users to receive erroneous messages instructing them to quarantine or risk fines of as much as $5,000.

While federal officials have said the cost of the original version of the app was $80,000, they have also said the app project was not given a clear projected cost given the uncertainty related to how long it would be needed.

The Globe first reported in October, 2022, that the cost of the ArriveCan app had grown to more than $54-million.

Shortly after, Mr. Poilievre introduced a motion calling on Auditor-General Karen Hogan to audit the cost of the pandemic-era app for international travellers. The Conservative motion was approved in a 174-149 vote, with Liberal and Green Party MPs voting against.

Ms. Hogan’s ensuing report, released earlier this month, found a “glaring disregard” for basic management practices as the price to build and maintain the app grew to an estimated $59.5-million. The report said the two-person IT staffing company GCStrategies, which received $19.1-million to work on the app, was directly involved in setting narrow terms for a $25-million contract it ultimately won.

Since the report’s release, Liberal ministers and MPs have stressed that the report did not find any evidence of political interference in the ArriveCan process. Defence Minister Bill Blair, who was responsible for the Canada Border Service Agency’s ArriveCan project when he was public safety minister during the pandemic, has said he was never briefed on the app’s growing costs.

“The inflated costs were not shared with the ministry at that time‚” Mr. Blair told CTV News in an interview after the release of the Auditor-General’s report. “I always accept my responsibility as the minister. But at the same time, I think it’s important to acknowledge if the information is not shared up through a management chain.”

Mr. Poilievre told The Globe Friday that ministers are ultimately responsible for spending in their departments.

“I don’t think it’s a defence if he says that he wasn’t aware,” he said. “If he can’t surveil all the contracts in his department, then he needs to choose smart, competent people who can do it for him.”

Mr. Poilievre said the fact that both the size of the public service and the budget for outsourcing have grown considerably under the Liberals indicates there is room to find savings.

“This is just classic mismanagement and carelessness,” he said. “We need to restore the discipline of scarcity inside the administration of government.”

GCStrategies, which has received millions of dollars to win federal contracts and then subcontract the work, is an example of where spending on consultants could be reduced, he said.

“Apparently their only role was to go out and find contractors. Are you telling me there’s no one among the hundreds of thousands of public servants we have that is capable of finding out which specialty contractors are needed?” he asked.

“That’s an obvious example of where we could get rid of an enormous amount of parasitical waste. Secondly, why can’t we have IT expertise inside the public service? ... I think we need to have reasonably well-paid IT services that are done in house so that we don’t need to contract out to these extremely expensive outside firms.”

NDP MP Blake Desjarlais said the estimates votes included a wide range of items in addition to ArriveCan. He said Conservatives “had their own scandals” while in office, pointing to the problem-plagued Phoenix pay system that was developed under the Conservatives and launched under the Liberals.

“We won’t take any lesson from Pierre Poilievre’s Conservatives,” he said in a statement. “New Democrats have been fighting since the beginning to get at the bottom of the ArriveCan scandal and to reduce the use of wealthy private consultants for years, and we won’t stop.”

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