STANDING COMMITTEE ON PUBLIC ACCOUNTS
COMITÉ PERMANENT DES COMPTES PUBLICS
Thursday 4 December 2003 Jeudi 4 décembre 2003
The Chair: The committee runs by accepting from a subcommittee suggestions as to the agenda, the schedule and those kinds of things. So we would like to call on each of the parties, the Liberals and the Conservatives, for nominations as to the members of the subcommittee.
The Chair: There was some discussion before the formal meeting took place that there is some movement afoot to change the standing orders to allow Shelley Martel, a member of the NDP caucus, to be a member of the subcommittee, but we are going to wait for that to occur.
The Chair: The subcommittee will be meeting in the next little while to identify parts of the auditor's report which the public accounts committee would like to review. Our most intense meetings will take place some time in February. We will likely meet for either two or two and a half weeks during that period of time to review various parts of the auditor's report. The subcommittee will be deciding between the three parties as to which parts of the auditor's report it would go through. So members of the committee in each party can advise their nominee as to whom they might want. That subcommittee report will be brought back to the committee and the committee will either endorse or change that particular report and go forward.
Clerk of the Committee: The important thing is with the organization. We now have a Chair and a Vice-Chair, and we can proceed with business. Unless the committee wishes to discuss how the committee works or perhaps have an overview from Mr McCarter, the assistant auditor, we could conclude today's business if you so wish.
The Chair: Why don't I discuss that with members of the subcommittee, because essentially, as I understood it, often the meetings would take place very informally so that if everybody on the subcommittee was available after question period, they might have a meeting for 10 or 15 minutes or whatever it is in order to deal with a particular issue. Rather than chasing around to find you, we would go ahead with that.
The first thing is the appointment of a new Provincial Auditor. Maybe you're aware the former auditor, Erik, retired September 30. Under the Audit Act, the way it works is there's an order in council by the government to address the assembly, but under the Audit Act it's on consultation with the Chair of the public accounts committee. I think the act's worded that way so that you get the opposition input into it.
Maybe I'll just mention that -- and I think this motion's gone -- there was a motion in the Legislature regarding the appointment of the auditor in June of last year. Basically, what they had decided was that they were going to have a selection committee chaired by the Speaker with a representative from each party, and that's the process that was in place then. Just to update you, I think this matter's been referred to the Speaker, but I'm not sure what decision is going to be made and how it's going to be handled.
Mr McCarter: Yes, I think it's an order-in-council on address of the assembly, but the act says it's an order-in-council on consultation with the Chair of the public accounts committee. So I'm not sure how the process is going to work.
Mr McCarter: Yes, because I think the previous process where they said the Speaker was going to chair the panel with a member from each party -- how they did it in the past, when Erik got the position, basically it was the full public accounts committee that was the selection committee. I know they put an ad in the Globe and Mail and people applied. I think the Office of the Legislative Assembly did the administrative work and then people came before the public accounts committee, were interviewed, and the public accounts committee I think made the decision and then the Chair would consult with the government. But this time they were going a bit of a different route. So that's just by way of background as to where that stands, and I think it's with the Speaker's office right now.
The second thing I'd just mention, more for the subcommittee, but I guess for everybody's attention: I think the government is going to be moving ahead with amendments to the Audit Act. They are amendments to expand the auditor's power to allow us to get into value-for-money auditing for the broader public sector. That's hospitals, universities, colleges and children's aid societies. That's about 50% of provincial expenditures. For about 15 years now we've been trying to get in there and do value-for-money auditing, but we haven't been able to get the act amended.
I've been having ongoing discussions with the Ministry of Finance. We're not sure about the timing of that bill, but we think it's going to be tabled fairly quickly. I expect that that bill probably will be referred to the standing committee on public accounts for clause-by-clause review. So that's something to keep in mind when you're scheduling your hearings.
The other think I'd point out is that the government had discussions with Gerry Phillips and the staff at MBS regarding this partisan advertising bill that they're in the process of looking at right now. I think there's going to be a fairly heavy involvement of the Provincial Auditor's office with respect to review of partisan advertising. Consequently, when that bill is tabled I wouldn't be surprised if that bill as well was referred to the standing committee on public accounts for clause-by-clause review.
Mr McCarter: I'm a bit reluctant to tell tales out of school on this, but one of the things they're looking at is on the partisan -- the advertising thing. It could have some impact on our office, and I think they're going to have to make a decision whether, if there are extra resources required -- and we're not talking a lot of resources for that, but would it be funded out of our appropriation, in which case we go before a Board of Internal Economy, which is an all-member committee to get our budget approved. Usually, it's chaired by the Speaker and there's proportional representation on it. I think they've announced --
Mr McCarter: The funding for that, for instance, could be through the Board of Internal Economy. They also have the option of doing it by statutory appropriation. They could basically say the expenses associated with this would be paid out of a statutory appropriation. That wouldn't be significant.
With respect to the budgetary impact, if we get our mandate extended to do VFM audits of the broader public sector -- I have to be blunt -- I don't think it would have a significant impact right away. It's something we would be ramping up to do, but once we see how the bill is laid out, we'd have a little better feel for it. If it comes before the committee for clause-by-clause discussion, that's certainly something I would welcome a question on at that time -- you know, "What impact, auditor, do you think this would have on your budget, and how do you see it playing out?" It could be that it may not be implemented immediately. What they might say in the bill is, "We're going to put it in but it's not going to come into effect until 2005-06." So I'd have a better idea on what the budgetary impact would be once I see the bill.
I don't know whether members are aware of the normal rhythm of the committee, save and except this would be somewhat unusual in terms of the committee dealing with an actual piece of legislation. The committee, as I understand it, normally doesn't deal with a piece of legislation that is referred to the committee. The committee then would probably have some form of public hearings for people to come in to talk about the bill. If the bill is going to deal with municipalities and hospitals and boards of education, that might attract a significant number of people wanting to come in front of the committee to express their opinions about it. But outside of that, perhaps, Anne, you could go through what the normal pattern is on a yearly basis for the committee.
Clerk of the Committee: Typically, the auditor tables his report late in the year -- November or early December. The committee then has a chance to review the report and generally make selections from that report. In the past it's been three selections per party. That's the way it has worked in the last while. That means the committee then will review those particular sections in more detail. Generally, they invite the deputy ministers for the ministries involved to appear before the committee for a day. It could be half a day or it could be a day. We generally say we'll start in the morning and we'll see how late it goes. It gives the deputy minister then the opportunity to address the auditor's concerns in the auditor's report, an opportunity to say what actions they've taken in response to that, actions they anticipate, and so on. The committee then has an opportunity to ask questions and to pursue whatever issues they find important.
Clerk of the Committee: That has been the practice. It doesn't have to be, but it's an opportunity for the committee to get together for -- rather than just an hour and a half or two hours that the committee normally sits, they have the opportunity to sit for a longer period, and it also provides the ministers the chance to come, to set a day aside in their schedule rather than setting aside two hours here and two hours there.
The other thing too is that normally the meetings will run from 10 o'clock to 12 o'clock, but what we've been doing for the last few years is that from 10 to 10:30 we would hold an in-camera briefing just for the members of the committee, where we would walk through what's in the briefing document, a bit of an outline of what our more significant concerns were. Again, it gives the members a bit of a heads-up, so when the deputy and the ADM and the program directors come in, I know you've read the document and everything, but you're more up to speed on what the issues are. I would throw that out as whether the committee would want that sort of process to continue.
The alternative is that the deputy comes in at 10 o'clock and you get going right away with the questions. It's been about three or four years now that we've had this 30-minute in-camera briefing where we'd talk to issues, leg research would discuss it, just to bring you up to speed on what the particular issues are in the report. So I would leave that with you as well.
I can take the opportunity to introduce Ray McLellan. He's a research officer. Elaine Campbell, at the back of the room, is also a research officer. They are assigned to the committee and provide, again, that kind of assistance. I might let Ray talk a bit about what you do.
Legislative research is part of the legislative library and, as hopefully most of you know, we provide non-partisan research for MPPs and committees around the assembly. With Elaine Campbell, we've served on this committee for a number of years; I hate to say how long.
Essentially we have two roles to play, as Jim has just mentioned, prior to those hearings in February. We prepare background documents that in the past have been useful to members. What we do is I think more value for money, or a value-added document, in terms of identifying issues in these long reports, and very dense reports, I might say, and in addition questions, kind of section by section so that you can follow it. As well as issues, we have questions in there.
This document would go down to Jim McCarter's office, so he has a chance to go through it and look at the questions, and add to questions or maybe say that some of these questions aren't terribly relevant, to point us in the right direction when we get into some areas.
In addition to the questions and issues paper, we provide background from the public accounts, from Hansard -- in other words, debate in the House. We would have information in there from the ministry's Web site if there are recent announcements, business plans. So we try to provide a fairly comprehensive document. As I say, Jim McCarter has a chance to look at that and add to it. That would be distributed, hopefully, at least a week before each of the hearings during the winter months.
The second role that we have is the report writing, so following the issue of the auditor's report last week. During the spring and into the summer and next fall we prepare reports like this on a topic-by-topic basis.
Ideally, following each hearing we would have a few minutes so we can get instructions from the committee to essentially say, "These are the areas we're really interested in, and let's go after the following four, five or six areas and prepare recommendations," and at times we may get direction through the Chair on what those recommendations may look like. That hasn't always happened. At times we just finish off the hearings and whatever the topic is the next day and leave it to legislative research to work through Hansard, to work through the discussion and speak with the Provincial Auditor about where we might be going. The onus is on our shoulders to come up with these reports, and they're brought back to you six or eight weeks later to discuss them.
One of the points I wanted to raise, to give you some sense of the value of these reports: There's a section in here asking the ministry to report back within 120 calendar days on the contents, recommendation by recommendation. I was looking around the table here to Shelley and to Julia and also to Richard Patten. That has been the case. The ministries have been quite serious about getting back to us within that 120-day time frame. That kind of ties in that accountability loop, and when the auditor does follow-ups two years from now on these audit reports, his office would have a look at this report and the follow-up and commitments from the ministry. So I think that's an important point, to make sure that the work we're doing is valued and taken seriously and that in fact there is some follow-up on those reports. That's essentially the role of legislative research.
In terms of the background documents used from hearings in February, if there's something else that you want in there or you would specifically like something, you can certainly ask us to go ahead and do that. But, as I say, all this is done through the direction of the Chair. So that's essentially our role.
Clerk of the Committee: So those meetings, the report writing after the public hearings with the ministries in question -- the rest of the year is generally then spent on that kind of detailed time with the draft reports, going through them, making recommendations and then, as the committee feels that it's finished and adopts a report, we print it up and it's tabled in the House.
Clerk of the Committee: Yes. That's right. The committee meets Thursday mornings. We've generally been meeting between 10 and 12, and we go through while the House is sitting and do that report writing.
In terms of bills being referred to the committee, it has happened before. The primary role of the committee of course is reviewing the auditor's report, but there have been a number of instances where bills have been referred. Last year there were, I believe, three private members' public bills referred to the committee. One was amendments to the Audit Act, one was on accountability in boards of directors in the public service and one was on --
Clerk of the Committee: I forget now what it was. I remember the numbers, but I can't remember what they were. So the committee has worked that into its schedule. I don't think public hearings were held on those three particular bills.
The Chair: The other part too is that normally during the summer months there is a conference of all the public accounts committees for the various provinces. We have to ask permission of the Legislative Assembly to go there and get the necessary funding to do that. This year it's taking place in Fredericton, New Brunswick, I believe.
Mr McCarter: Basically it's twofold. It's all the public accounts committees. Representatives from the public accounts committees from across Canada get together and the legislative auditors get together. They have some joint sessions together as a group and then we each have some separate sessions where the public accounts reps will get together and the legislative auditors will get together. It's about a two-and-a-half-day conference.
The Chair: At the subcommittee, no doubt we will be discussing when that time frame is going to be in February. If any members of the committee have holiday plans or something during that period of time, you should let your caucus representative know about those conflicts, because we'll try to avoid messing up anybody's plans during that period of time if possible.
Mrs Munro: Just a comment in reference to the point you made about the dates in February. This is a committee I think that others who have been on it would agree is more difficult to have someone substitute because there is that ongoing obligation in terms of the report writing. It's really difficult if you weren't here during the period of the public hearing. You're obviously dependent upon the notes in Hansard and the work of Ray, our researcher, but it's really helpful when you've been here for that part of the process to then be able to make a better contribution on the side of the report writing.
Mr McCarter: There is no question -- I used to be an assistant deputy minister before I came over with the Provincial Auditor's office -- and just knowing from speaking with the deputy ministers, they take the recommendations of this committee extremely seriously. Of all the committees, to be honest, that they don't want to appear before, probably public accounts is at the top of the list. They really do take the work of the committee very seriously, and your recommendations are taken seriously; they're going to respond in writing to them. As Ray mentioned, the committee really does complete the accountability loop with respect to our work.
I just want to clarify, if anybody is interested in what happened last year: I have some responses that we've received from ministries regarding reports that have not been distributed to the committee, because of course the committee didn't exist until just this week.
If anybody is interested in any previous work, I would be happy to distribute that to you. It's on file. I have it. It's a matter of public record, but I'm assuming that you may not necessarily want to have that information right now, and we'll just start fresh with this new report. But by all means, I have the information, and if you'd like to see the previous work of the committee, just let me know.
Ms Laurel C. Broten (Etobicoke-Lakeshore L)
Mr Jim Flaherty (Whitby-Ajax PC)
Mr Peter Fonseca (Mississauga East / -Est L)
Ms Shelley Martel (Nickel Belt ND)
Mr Bill Mauro (Thunder Bay-Atikokan L)
Mrs Liz Sandals (Guelph-Wellington L)