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Procurement Minister Jean-Yves Duclos participates in a news conference on the government's actions to strengthen procurement practices in Ottawa on Mar. 20.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

For a year, the Liberal government stood around flat-footed while revelations about the ArriveCan app spread into an indictment of federal procurement. Now they are running to catch up.

They finally caught a piece of the tiger’s tail on Wednesday, when they announced they had found that three contractors fraudulently overbilled government departments to the tune of $5-million.

That sounds like bad news for the Liberals. But for the first time, the government found the fraud itself, with its own crackdown, rather than having it spill out from hearings and audits about ArriveCan that have spread out into an assortment of abuses in the world of federal contracting.

The $5-million in fraudulent bills wasn’t related to ArriveCan, but at least Liberal cabinet ministers can now claim they’re doing something about the whole procurement mess: going after fraud and sending receipts to the RCMP, and warning potential fraudsters and double-billers to watch out.

For so long, Liberal politicians and staffers had stood around slack-jawed while civil servants told Canadians they didn’t know what happened with ArriveCan or how much it cost.

Privacy Commissioner launches new ArriveCan investigation, pushing number of probes to over a dozen

When it emerged that a two-person company had charged a 15-per-cent to 30-per-cent commission for hiring not only individual programmers but established companies, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had called it “illogical and inefficient.” Yet the government did seem to be digging its arms into the procurement system to repair it.

The ugly revelations spread to contractors and contracts besides the ones related to ArriveCan. Questions were raised about potentially cozy ties between suppliers and contractors, about the use of contracting set-asides for Indigenous companies, and about public servants doubling up as government contractors.

Liberal MPs at ArriveCan hearings had no idea what to make of the whole thing. Mr. Trudeau’s government didn’t know what to do about it – it had smelled smoke, but hadn’t figured out where the fire was, let alone how to point a hose at it.

On Wednesday, however, a glimmer of hope for the Liberals emerged in the form of multimillion-dollar fraud upon the people of Canada. Or, at least, in the fact they had found it.

Three IT subcontractors were found to have billed multiple departments for the same hour in the same day – touching 36 different departments in all. Officials said they were caught because of tips and data analytics that allowed them to compare subcontractor billings across departments. Officials expect there will be more to come.

“That is a clear signal to others that may be tempted to proceed with fraudulent billing,” said Jean-Yves Duclos, the Public Services and Procurement Minister.

Mr. Duclos also announced a new Office of Supplier Integrity and Compliance, which is vague but impressive-sounding and has lots of capital letters. More concretely, the government will establish new powers to ban or pursue suppliers for various misdeeds.

Finally, the government has found a way to display an interest in finding contracting fraud, and in doing something about it.

That’s an important political message for the government to get across. But it was transmitted less than emphatically because it was left to Mr. Duclos, who communicates in the abstractions of a former economics professor, and to Treasury Board President Anita Anand, who wanted to talk about how she had procured COVID-19 vaccines.

None of it, it is worth noting, enlightened Canadians about what happened in the ArriveCan debacle itself.

The answers the government provided about questions related to that fiasco still sounded bizarrely uncertain, as if all related documents are hidden in unlabelled filing cabinets scattered in basements around Ottawa.

David Yeo, the founder of ArriveCan contractor Dalian who was hired as a Department of National Defence civil servant in September, told a Commons committee this week that he had declared his contractor role. Ms. Anand said her understanding is that, “to date,” the government hadn’t found evidence he had declared it.

Yet, even so, Wednesday marked the start of some kind of Liberal response to the whole mess.

The government can’t prevent more ugly revelations about ArriveCan and contracting, so they will try to deflect it with efforts to uncover fraud and measures to fight it in the future. After more than a year of standing around, the Liberals are finally running to catch up.

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