Monday, December 15, 2003

Liberal MLAs shun chance to do their jobs better
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - Why in the world would MLAs not want an extra tool for making sure government is working?
Liberal backbenchers on the finance committee sure didn't seem interested, as they sniped at efforts by the province's auditor general to give them just that.
Auditor General Wayne Strelioff was before the committee to answer questions about his budget request for the coming year. The auditor is an independent officer of the legislature - he works for MLAs, not the premier. They get to decide his budget.
Strelioff made his case, based on a report he'd given to the Speaker a couple of days earlier.
That was apparently a mistake. MLA Lorne Mayencourt was horrified, but not at the report's revelation that budget cuts had forced cancellation of a review of public-private partnership plans. No he was fuming because - the outrage - the report had gone to the legislature before it had been presented to the committee.
The auditor general is the truth-teller in government. Ministers want to look smart. Bureaucrats want to defend their performance. The opposition wants to make the government look bad.
But the auditor general looks at the numbers, and the facts, and lays out what he finds.
That's sometimes not in the government's interest. But it is in the public's interest.
It's not just checking the government's financial statements, although that's important. The auditor general has tackled issues like forest fire protection, issuing warnings - largely ignored - about big holes in the province's planning. He's examined the way government consulting contracts were awarded under the NDP, and found major irregularities. A recent report identified major problem with a program that pays $300 million a year to doctors. (Problems made worse because of arbitrary staff cuts by the Liberals.)
The auditor general is your friend.
And if the system was working, he would be the MLAs' friend too. Backbenchers are protective of their party. But they should also be protecting the people who voted for them.
Strelioff was explaining why his budget should be increased by $1 million, instead of being cut for the second straight year. "Now is the time for a stronger — not a weaker — independent public scrutiny of the performance of government," he said.
His arguments were sound. The government is doing a massive restructuring during a tough economic time. It's important that MLAs get information on whether it's working. It's moving to more performance-based management, which needs MLAs need to know whether the targets are really measurable, and being achieved. And any organization needs an independent watchdog to make sure things are being done right.
Last year's budget cut meant the auditor's office had to abandon a number of planned projects, including a review of the approach to public-private partnerships, an examination of how the government manages major environmental issues and education effectiveness. They all sound valuable.
It's not cheap. The auditor will get about $7.9 million in funding this year, and take in another $2 million for auditing fees. But that is about half the budget of the auditor general in much smaller Alberta.
Strelioff proposed a $500,000 increase operating funds, and another $500,000 allocated as a contingency fund in case MLAs on legislative committees wanted him to look at something. They have that power. If they chose to use it, the money would be there, pre-approved. If they didn't, it wouldn't get spent.
I'd like that. I was on the education committee, and wanted independent, fact-based information how the four-day week was working for students, I'd like the idea of the budget being there. If I ws on the public accounts committee, and wanted an independent look at the soundness of an Olympic megaproject, I'd like to know the money was there.
But these Liberal MLAs thought that was a terrible idea. The expense would show up in the budget, wouldn't it, worried MLA Brian Kerr.
It was a curious sight to see, our MLAs choosing to turn their backs on an opportunity to make government more effective.
Footnote: I could be wrong, of course. Read the transcript yourself at At the meeting: Brenda Locke, Kerr, Patty Sahota, Jeff Bray, Ida Chong, Arnie Hamilton, Mike Hunter, Wendy McMahon, Dave Hayer, Mayencourt.

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