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Group calls for key changes to give Auditor General and Parliamentary Budget Officer needed powers

OTTAWA – Today, Democracy Watch called for key changes to give the Auditor Generals (AGs) across Canada, and the federal Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO), the independence, mandate and powers needed to ensure honesty in government and politician spending.  As well, Democracy Watch called on provincial and territorial governments to establish PBOs that also cover municipal governments in each jurisdiction.

The key problems that the AGs across Canada, and the federal PBO, cannot currently prevent because of lack of independence, weak mandates, or lack of resources or powers, are as follows:

-  government spending can violate rules for years before an AG finds out;

-  spending by most politicians on their office budgets can break every rule because such spending is not fully audited by an AG or anyone else (except in Nova Scotia, and in Newfoundland and Labrador, where AG audits led to criminal charges against some politicians);

-  government advertising can often be propaganda for the ruling party (as it has been federally since 2008 as it has increased at an alarming rate – although Ontario at least gives the AG the power to reject government ads leading up to an election);

-  the federal government can easily thwart attempts by the PBO to produce an accurate report on the actual cost of any government initiative, simply by refusing to provide, or delaying release of, key information;

    “To ensure honest federal government and politician spending that follows all the rules, the Auditor General and Parliamentary Budget Officer must be chosen by a majority of all party leaders not by Cabinet, with their budgets determined based on need not Cabinet whim, and they must be given the power and be required to pre-approve significant spending initiatives including advertising, to conduct much more frequent audits of all spending, to force corrective actions and to penalize violations with high penalties,” said Tyler Sommers, Coordinator of Democracy Watch.  “If these changes are not made, spending by the federal government and politicians will continue to be a web of lies and abuse that wastes Canadians’ hard-earned money.”

    Democracy Watch will soon launch a national letter-writing campaign pushing the federal government, and all governments across Canada, to make these key changes.

    The need for effective enforcement by AGs of government spending rules has been shown by every AG report ever issued, and the need in the politician spending area has been shown through the recent Senate spending scandal that includes up to 22 Senators who have refused to answer questions about where they live and whether they are illegally collecting tens of thousands of dollars a year in residence allowances.  As well, ample evidence is provided by the spending scandals involving politicians from various parties and levels of government including federal Conservative Cabinet ministers Bev Oda and Jason Kenney, former Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe, Conservative Senator Patrick Brazeau, Liberal MPs Judy Sgro, Wayne Easter, John Cannis and Andrew Telegdi, and former Liberal Cabinet minister Joe Fontana.

    As the only organization that has defended the federal PBO and called for key changes to make the PBO more effective since the office was created in 2007, including during 2009 when all federal parties were attacking the PBO, Democracy Watch has documented again and again how the PBO’s lack of independence and effective powers has allowed the federal government to escape accountability for dishonest budgetting.  With the current Parliamentary Budget Officer’s term coming to an end in mid-March, key changes must be made to the PBO’s office immediately to ensure it is an effective watchdog.

    To ensure the ongoing proper use of taxpayer dollars, and to ensure that government advertisements don’t further partisan interests more than informing Canadians, the following changes need to be made to all Auditor Generals (AGs) across Canada, and the federal Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO – and all other jurisdictions need to establish a PBO):

    -  the PBO must be made a fully independent officer of Parliament, with a fixed term of office and control over his staff;

    -  the AG and PBO must be appointed with the approval of a majority of federal political party leaders (currently opposition leaders are only “consulted” on the nominees);

    -  the annual budgets of the AG and PBO must be determined through a needs-based evaluation process that ensures all significant spending initiatives will be fully scrutinized, and all government institutions will be audited at least every three years;

    -  the AG and PBO must be given the power, and required, to pre-approve all significant spending initiatives to ensure honest disclosure of costs, and compliance with all spending rules;

    -  the PBO and AG must be required to disclose the number of complaints/requests they receive each year, and what they do/are doing with each request;

    -  the AG must fully audit politicians’ office spending every three years (the AG has the clear power to do this, but has failed to do such an audit for 20 years);

    -  the PBO must be given the power to order the release of information (as the information commissioners have in British Columbia, Ontario, and Quebec);

    -  the AG must be given the power to review and reject proposed government advertising if it promotes the ruling party’s agenda more than it inform voters;

    -  the PBO and AG must be given the power to fine violators who break spending rules or fail to provide them with the information they request within specific timelines.

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