Canada's auditor general seeks mandate to regularly audit Senate expenses

Auditor General of Canada Michael Ferguson wants a mandate from the Senate to perform regular sample audits on senators' spending - but that's just one option senators are weighing as they study models of independent oversight.

'I think we have a role to play ... but ultimately it's up to the Senate,' Michael Ferguson says

Auditor General of Canada Michael Ferguson believes his office could play a role in helping reduce expense abuse in the Senate. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Auditor General of Canada Michael Ferguson wants a mandate from the Senate to perform regular sample audits on senators' spending, and senior senators are not ruling that out as a possible solution to expenses abuse.

"I think we have a role to play, I think we can help them," Michael Ferguson said in an interview with host Chris Hall on CBC Radio's The House.

"I think we can help people understand what the situation is in the Senate, and be confident we apply our audit procedures to the Senate, but ultimately it's up to [them]," he added.

All options on table for Senate

Senators Leo Housakos and Jane Cordy, who chair the Senate committee on internal economy — the committee that essentially administers the Senate — said calling in the auditor general is one option among several they're currently exploring.

"However, in keeping with the recommendations of the [Office of the Auditor General], we would be remiss if we did not consider value for money as we explore all options, including perhaps some from the private sector," they said in a statement to CBC News.

"When it comes to adopting a new model of independent oversight pertaining to expenses, the Senate will ... carefully consider the cost benefit to taxpayers and good governance practices," the statement continued.​

The Office of the Auditor General (OAG) completed a two-year, $23.5-million review of Senate spending last June, flagging 30 current and former senators for questionable expense claims totalling nearly $1 million.

Although that figure was greatly reduced after Ian Binnie, a retired Supreme Court justice reviewed the expenses of some senators as part of a binding arbitration process.

"I think people understood that with the work that we did in the Senate, we were able to give a clear picture about every senator that we did the audit on — 116 senators," Ferguson said.

Routine 'sample' audits

But the OAG doesn't necessarily want to repeat the same type of extensive review on every member of the Red Chamber in the future.

"A mandate of doing regular sample audits would be the type of thing I think would be a natural extension of what we already did," he said.

But so far, that mandate from the Senate hasn't been issued.

"We haven't heard anything from the Senate about whether they intend to give us any such mandate," Ferguson said, adding that he thinks it's "very important" for the OAG to be able to conduct routine auditing.

"Fundamentally, people are going to judge the Senate based on the Senate's actions, and the Senate is going to have to make sure they can indicate to people how they have improved the way they're controlling and managing their expenses."

That's where he thinks the OAG can help, he added.

"We felt that most of the work that we did in the Senate ... most of the value was really about the recommendations we made about how the Senate needed to transform itself in the way it manages its spending," he said.

Conservative Senator Leo Housakos, the chair of the Senate's internal economy committee, told CBC News that routine 'sample' audits by the AG is a possibility. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Housakos and Cordy said that the Senate has been working to implement the more immediate of those recommendations, and "that in some cases, we have gone even further than what was recommended."

They pointed to a strengthened code of ethics and a new, uniform model of disclosure for all contracts, adopted Thursday at a public meeting of the internal economy committee.

Disclosures will now include all living, travel and hospitality expenses, as well as the names of suppliers for all contracts.

"This new model of disclosure does not just meet a new standard of transparency but also efficiency, as it will streamline the Senate's administrative process for reimbursing and reporting expenses," they said.

Auditor General Michael Ferguson discusses his report into CPP disability claims, border services and a communications error impacting Saskatchewan first responders 10:32

With files from the CBC's John Paul Tasker

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