Omnibus pandemic bill allows UCP government to delay presenting its first annual financial report
Auditor general's office says work could have been completed for June 30 deadline
The Alberta legislature has given the United Conservative Party government the ability to postpone financial reporting on its first year in office.
Alberta's Finance Minister Travis Toews said Thursday a two-month delay is necessary to allow government workers to focus on responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But the Opposition said the move obscures accountability. It accused the United Conservative Party government of using misinformation to justify the postponement.
"By delaying it to the very end of summer and burying it, under additional information they would provide around pandemic spending and pandemic programming, they will hope that Albertans will mix the two up and not hold Jason Kenney to account for the failures of his economic and fiscal policy in his first year in office," NDP leader Rachel Notley said on Thursday.
Toews' press secretary disputed Notley's characterization of the government's financial management. Jerrica Goodwin said in a Thursday email that economic indicators such as oil and gas drilling, building permits and exports were all rising in early 2020 before the novel coronavirus reached Alberta in March.
Toews says Alberta's deadline among earliest
Deferring the deadline until Aug. 31 to file the government's audited financial statements is part of Bill 24, an omnibus bill that cleared the legislature on Thursday. It temporarily amends 15 pieces of legislation, which the government said will allow it to continue responding to the pandemic without continuing a provincial state of public health emergency until the end of 2021.
Alberta's usual financial reporting deadline of June 30 is one of the earliest among the provinces, Toews said on Thursday. Even with the August deadline, Alberta's books will still be open to scrutiny before some other jurisdictions, he said.
"In mid-March, early April, we knew we were not in a situation where we could say, well, let's just see what happens," he said on Tuesday. "We knew it would be unwise to require ministries to fulfil reporting obligations by deadline when their resources were required for front-line response to the pandemic."
Opposition MLAs are angered by what they call the government's attempt to mislead the chamber and the public about the reason for delay.
Auditor general's office dragged into spat
Though several government statements have attributed the delay to concerns from the province's auditor general, that isn't the case, the auditor general said in emails this week.
On May 27, Toews told the legislature that the auditor general, who is an independent officer of the legislature, was concerned employees wouldn't be able to complete the audit work by June 30.
On Monday, Premier Jason Kenney said in the legislature the auditor's office " is not capable of completing the review of the fiscal books at this point."
But in two emails sent to the NDP on Tuesday and Wednesday, Val Mellesmoen, a spokesperson for the auditor's office, said the decision to extend the financial reporting period was made by the government, not at the auditor's request.
As of Tuesday, about 85 per cent of the work was done, the emails said. She said they could have finished the work on time.
Mellesmoen has confirmed to CBC that the emails are authentic.
"It is beyond reproach for the premier to blame the auditor and besmirch his reputation and that of his office to further his own political goals and hide from his record," Notley said Thursday.
She said both premier and finance minister should apologize to auditor Doug Wylie.
Bill 24 requires royal assent from Alberta's lieutenant-governor before it takes effect.