Court to rule Thursday on speeding up G8 case

The Federal Court will rule Thursday on whether to rush a case that could force the auditor general to release her audit into last year's G8 spending.

Judge to decide whether to hear lawsuit seeking report's release before election

Kathleen Trotter, centre, and the online activist group Avaaz.org is suing Auditor General Sheila Fraser to release her final report into G8 spending. Emma Ruby-Sachs, right, the group's campaign director, and legal counsel Frank Addario joined Trotter at a Toronto press conference Tuesday. (Patrick Morrell/CBC)

A Federal Court judge will rule Thursday on whether to rush a hearing into a case that could force the auditor general to release her report into last year's G8 spending.

Avaaz, an organization known for its petitions on democracy and rights issues, made its case Wednesday — just one day after filing an application with the court asking it to expedite the hearing on whether to make Auditor General Sheila Fraser release the report.

Avaaz wants Fraser to make public her report into the Conservative government's G8 summit spending before Canadians go to the polls next Monday.

There are only two full working days between now and election day May 2.

Judge Simon Noël reserved his decision until Thursday morning.

A leaked early draft of the report, obtained by The Canadian Press, said the Conservative government allegedly "misinformed" Parliament to win approval for a $50-million G8 fund that spread taxpayers' money on dubious projects in a Conservative riding.

But the most damning lines from that report didn't appear in a later draft, according to Conservative candidate John Baird, who was the government house leader in the last parliamentary session.

Charter issue: Avaaz

Avaaz said Tuesday they've collected more than 80,000 signatures urging Fraser to release the report. The lawsuit argues Canadians need to see the report so they can have a meaningful discussion about an important issue, and that this is required under the Charter sections on voting and freedom of expression.

"The report alleges that the Harper government illegally handed $50 million in taxpayers' money to a Conservative riding and covered it up as G8 summit spending," Avaaz said in a news release.

"It's simply a question of truth," said Emma Ruby-Sachs. "Canadians want to know the answer to this question, they need to know the answer before they cast a vote."

Despite Fraser's argument that she is an officer of Parliament and can only report to a sitting House of Commons under the law governing her office, Ruby-Sachs says that rule isn't explicitly outlined.

"Parliament represents the people; the people have the right to know," she said.

In a response filed by Fraser's office, her lawyer argues the public doesn't have the right to force her to release a document.

"The auditor general does not have a public duty to release her audit reports to the public," Todd Burke wrote. "The only duty owed by the auditor general under the Auditor General Act is to the House of Commons."

He says the House of Commons has previously confirmed Parliament's right to be first to receive reports its officers, pointing to a 2007 committee report.

Burke also argues an expedited hearing wouldn't be fair.

"The auditor general and the public interest would suffer prejudice," he wrote. "The decision could have far-reaching effects on the auditor general's ongoing reporting obligations."

Leaks unprecedented

Parliamentary expert Ned Franks said Fraser's in a difficult situation with not only one unprecedented leak, but two.

"She's bound by the rules and traditions of the office and the rules and traditions of Parliament, which is that Parliament is the only appropriate recipient for a completed report," he said.

Franks says the law governing Fraser's office says she "shall" table the report in Parliament, but it doesn't say she can't release the report somewhere else. In other words, she's not explicitly banned from releasing the report outside of the House of Commons.

"The court's issue here, what they're going to have to decide on, is whether the shall means only, or perhaps in addition to others?" Franks said.

"What I hope this organization does is keep pursuing the issue after the election so that it's clarified."

A spokesman for the auditor general's office said they're standing by the statement released after the leak.

"The Office of the Auditor General of Canada remains the custodian of its reports until they are presented to the Speaker of the House of Commons for tabling," Fraser said when the draft version was leaked.

She urged Canadians to wait for the complete version of the report, and said her office has launched an investigation of the leaks.

All the party leaders have agreed they want to see the report released.

This isn't the first time Avaaz has made headlines in Canada. Last fall, the group started an error-filled petition against right-wing Sun News Network's application to the CRTC for a broadcast licence.

The petition referred to the network by its "Fox News North" nickname, rather than its actual name, and said it was part of what Avaaz said was Harper's plan to "push American-style hate media" onto the airwaves. The network is actually owned by Québecor, although several former Harper staffers work for it.