Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The environment commissioner needs its own office

Sheila Fraser, the Auditor General of Canada, has become somewhat of a hero not just to accountants but to most Canadians in general for blowing the lid of of Sponsorgate and even before that being extremely aggressive in her review of spending by the federal government.

Within the office of Canada's top bean counter is that of the environmental commissioner. This was a post created out of Jean Chrétien's first "Red Book." Sort of. The idea that Paul Martin and Chaviva Hosek, who really wrote the 1993 Liberal platform, was that the "Environmental Auditor General" would be a completely separate office; but whether because of an opposition amendment or a change of heart it was decided to put the office within the purview of the Office of the Auditor General.

Today, we learn that Fraser has fired the commissioner, Johanne Gélinas. It is thought that she had gotten way too critical of both the Liberal and Conservative governments over their environmental record and went from merely reviewing performance to becoming an advocate on it.

No disrespect to Fraser, but hasn't the OAG itself become an advocate of sorts over the years? In the absence until recently of a Comptroller General (a chief accountant for the executive), the OAG as the servant of Parliament has had to do double duty, reviewing as well as signing off on the books, while making recommendations on how to improve performance. Typically, Fraser and her assistants go through the government every three years which means only a third of the tax dollars we pay are reviewed each year. We kind of expect in the interim someone will speak for those who are powerless, and I don't mean lobbyists who are in bed with one side or another but someone who can look at the big picture with a totally unbiased and non-partisan perspective.

So it's only natural that Jélinas would want to put her stamp on the Green File. Just as the Auditor makes recommendations on how to implement best practices on spending, we need someone arms length to do the same for the environment. The current government isn't doing its job and it's pretty clear the NDP and Cons are going to strike any deal to avoid an election at least until this fall. So who will speak up? Big Oil? We know where they stand. Greenpeace? Too confrontational at times.

The office of environment auditor should have been kept separate in the first place. I would make it a separate office with its own staff and budget -- and like the OAG, I'd not only permit quarterly reports, but I'd require it so the government is constantly scrutinized.

Why Fraser made her decision may be her business. But as she reports to Parliament, it should be our business too. I think we need some answers. I have to agree with Green Party leader Elizabeth May in her assessment that this is "shooting the messenger."

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