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Auditor-General faces chill at Commons committees, sources say

Auditor-General Michael Ferguson prepares to testify before the Commons public accounts committee on Oct. 31, 2011.

CHRIS WATTIE/Chris Wattie/Reuters

The Harper government has sent strong signals to the federal spending watchdog that his presence won't be required in future at as many Commons committee meetings, sources say.

Five different individuals – inside and outside Auditor-General Michael Ferguson's office – told The Canadian Press this week that officials there expect the opportunities for him to testify on his quarterly reports will be reduced.

"The Auditor-General is a sovereign of Parliament and, if Parliament is not receiving his work, it's very troubling," said one insider with specific knowledge of the issue.

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But the Conservatives are denying the move, saying nothing has changed.

"That's absolutely false. We respond to the Auditor-General, that's our principal purpose at public accounts [committee] We have in the past and we will in the future," said Daryl Kramp, Conservative vice-chairman of the committee.

The Auditor-General is an officer of Parliament, reporting directly to the House of Commons rather than to the government.

This week, Conservatives on the public accounts committee rejected a Liberal motion to call the newly appointed Mr. Ferguson to testify about the controversial G8 legacy infrastructure fund. The committee is actively studying the fund, and has heard from ministers with responsibility for the file.

Mr. Kramp said interim auditor-general John Wiersema had already answered more than 50 questions about the G8 legacy fund over the course of various appearances, the last on Oct. 5.

But it has been long-standing practice for the Auditor-General to testify at committees on the general content of reports, as Mr. Wiersema has done, and then to return later to comment on specific aspects. On those occasions, government officials from relevant departments are also called in so they can respond to recommendations and criticisms.

Earlier this fall, the Conservatives on the same committee declared it unnecessary to pursue the study of an auditor general's report that was tabled before the May 2 election.

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Mr. Wiersema noted the change during a committee meeting this fall, saying it has been the practice to bring reports forward to the next Parliament so MPs can study and report on them.

"I believe that to be a best practice. I believe that is a practice that is followed by public accounts committees across the country and internationally, as a good practice," Mr. Wiersema told MPs in October.

"I believe as well that it provides a basis for this committee to follow up on the findings of the work of this committee, as well as the auditor general's office, in determining what subsequent corrective action has been taken."

Mr. Kramp said the committee is already overloaded with studies of more recent Auditor-General reports. He said the opposition has already wasted a lot of the committee's time with filibusters and cancelled meetings.

"I have no reservation about bringing the auditor general back for the reports he issues to us. That's our job to listen to that, but we can't always be going back to last year and last year and last year," Mr. Kramp said.

"We have work we have to stay current with and I'm determined to see that happen."

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When asked whether there had been any directive or signal sent to the Auditor-General, a spokesman for the office said this week it has "no reason to expect there would be a decrease in the number of hearings about our reports."

"Moreover, we strongly believe that committee hearings are important opportunities for Parliament to use the auditor general's reports to improve government management and accountability," Ghislain Desjardins said.

"It is through the committee hearings process that Parliament holds government to account."

Sara MacIntrye, a spokeswoman for the Prime Minister's Office, said she was unaware of any signal sent to the Auditor-General's office and underlined that committees determine their own agendas.

Liberal MP Gerry Byrne tabled a motion to call Mr. Ferguson to the public accounts committee to discuss the G8 fund, but the committee went in camera Wednesday afternoon to discuss the issue. Mr. Byrne could only say afterward that his motion was not on the committee's agenda for the future.

"The point is that there are more questions to ask. ... The majority of the committee is preventing the Auditor-General from appearing before the committee, on a chapter which we have decided to study," Mr. Byrne said.

"We're already in report-writing stage, or soon will be, and quite frankly, I can't see how we can do that without actually hearing specifically from the Auditor-General."

The public accounts committee has traditionally been viewed as one of the most non-partisan committees, one of the few to have an opposition chair even under a majority government.

But the Conservatives have changed some of the rules around the committee. Under the last majority Liberal government, questions were rotated through each party one by one – eight minutes per MP per party to begin, and then five minutes afterward for each party.

Under the majority Tories, the Conservatives now get 35 minutes in a theoretical 73 minute stretch, the NDP 28 minutes and the Liberals 10 minutes.

Former NDP leader Ed Broadbent, a member of an advisory council for the Auditor-General's office, said it would be an abuse of power if the Conservatives use their majority on committees to limit Mr. Ferguson's appearances.

"It goes to the heart of the accountability of spending that is so crucial to a parliamentary democracy, so ... if it proceeds, [this]is an outrageous act," Mr. Broadbent said.

"The Auditor-General's reputation is one of unimpeachable integrity, it's one of the few institutions that Canadians still trust."

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