It’s no exaggeration to say that outgoing Auditor General Sheila Fraser is one of the most important — not to mention popular — Canadian political figures of the last decade.
Known for her scrupulousness, forthright manner and general unflappability, she issued sharp but even-handed critiques of the spending practices of both the Liberal and Conservative governments that ruled during her tenure.
The role of the Auditor General
The role of federal Auditor General dates back to 1878, when parliamentarian John Lorn McDougall was appointed to the post. The AG’s central function hasn’t changed, but the job has evolved.
Using powers granted under the Auditor General Act (1977), the Auditor General is an independent official whose essential role is to review and assess the government’s use of public funds and the accuracy of its financial statements. The AG’s purview includes the government, Crown corporations and federal regulatory bodies.
With a team of 650 people, the Office of the Auditor General compiles an annual report that is presented to the House of Commons. (The office can produce up to three additional reports each year.)
Appointed for a 10-year term by the Governor General in accordance with the federal cabinet, the Auditor General does not pass judgment on policy choices, but rather on how they are implemented, always with an eye to fiscal responsibility. The office has the power to requisition documents from auditees, but has no power to punish government bodies found to be fiscally irresponsible.
An accountant by trade, Fraser joined the Office of the Auditor General of Canada as Deputy Auditor General, Audit Operations, in 1999. She was appointed Auditor General in May 2001.
Her tenure ends May 30 and it has been lively, to say the least. Here is a list of the issues that defined her term.
Report on the long gun registry (Dec. 2, 2002)
Fraser's office found that the cost of the Canadian Firearms Registry created by the Liberal government would exceed $1 billion by 2004 - 500 times the original 1995 estimate of $2 million. The Auditor General took the opportunity to call for more rigorous scrutiny of federal spending. The so-called long gun registry would become an albatross for the Liberal Party.
Report on the Office of the Privacy Commissioner (Sept. 30, 2003)
In probing the dealings of Privacy Commissioner George Radwanski, Fraser found a culture of fear and reckless spending. Among other things, her report stated that his office's financial statements had been doctored to hide overspending of $234,000; that Radwanski had received two inexplicable payments of $15,000, only one of which was repaid; and that he claimed $56,000 in unjustified vacation leave.
Fraser also found that his office was a hotbed for bullying. "People were abused, intimidated - culture of fear, reign of terror - that's what upset me the most," Fraser said. "People broke down when we interviewed them - my staff's never seen that."
Report on the federal sponsorship scandal (Feb. 10, 2004)
This was the big one. The federal sponsorship program was set up in 1996 by the ruling Liberal Party as a way to counter separatist sentiment in Quebec by raising awareness of the various benefits the federal government had brought to the province. An audit by Fraser's office, however, discovered that up to $100 million of the $250 million available in the program was given to Crown corporations and advertising firms for little or no work.
The report revealed that the government used Via Rail, Canada Post and the RCMP to transmit money to advertising companies, and that it did not allow fair competition for federal contracts worth $793 million.
"I think this is such a blatant misuse of public funds that it is shocking," Fraser said. "I am actually appalled by what we've found."
Fraser's stinging report led to the establishment of the Gomery Commission, which investigated the legal ramifications of the scandal. For the Liberals, another, even bigger albatross.
Report on terrorism preparedness (Apr. 6, 2005)
Four years after 9/11, Fraser suggested that Canada was ill prepared for a terrorist attack. Her report "found deficiencies in the way intelligence is managed across the government," stating that "a lack of co-ordination has led to gaps in intelligence coverage as well as duplication."
Perhaps the most damning appraisal was this: "The government as a whole did not adequately assess intelligence lessons learned from critical incidents such as September 11 or develop and follow up on improvement programs."
Report on the federal integrity commissioner (Dec. 9, 2010)
Fraser found that Integrity Commissioner Christiane Ouimet harassed her staff, punished employees she suspected of having filed complaints against her, and ultimately failed to do her job.
"In our view, [Ouimet's] behaviour and actions do not pass the test of public scrutiny and are inappropriate and unacceptable for a public servant - most notably for the agent of Parliament specifically charged with the responsibility of upholding integrity in the public sector and of protecting public servants from reprisal," Fraser wrote in her report.
Ouimet retired two days prior to the announcement that her office was being audited.
Leak of draft report on funding of G8/G20 summit (April 10, 2011)
Two draft reports from Fraser's office were leaked on the eve of the first debate of the 2011 federal election campaign, both of them casting doubt on funding projects tied to the G8/G20 summits in the summer of 2010. The main point of contention was nearly $50 million spent on G8 Legacy Infrastructure Fund projects in and around Huntsville, Ont., the home riding of Federal Industry Minister Tony Clement.
Fraser cautioned Canadians about mistaking a leaked draft as the final report. "Sometimes during the process of fact validation, additional information is brought to our attention. Only the final report that is tabled in Parliament represents our audit findings and conclusions," Fraser said.
The Office of the Auditor General subsquently launched a probe into the source of the leak. The final report is scheduled to be presented to Parliament on June 7 - after Fraser's exit.
Conservatives misquote Fraser in report (April 11, 2011)
On the morning that the government fell - which commenced the 2011 election campaign - the Conservatives issued a report on G8/G20 spending with some favourable verbiage from Sheila Fraser: "We found that the processes and controls around that were very good, and that the monies were spent as they were intended to be spent." But in a scathing letter to members of a Commons committee, Fraser clarified that the quote was out of context - it had been made during a CBC News interview about security spending by a Liberal government after the 9/11 attacks.