Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

This watchdog barked, growled

Servant of the people, Sheila Fraser leaves with her reputation, integrity intact

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Clearly the governors of Quebec City's Garrison Club had no clue as to the incredible investment they were turning down. In 1981, they told the newest partner of Ernst and Young that if she persisted in her desire to mingle with the select crowd at the city's 102-year-old private club, she'd have to ask her husband to sign a membership card for the men-only bastion of British tradition.

Sheila Fraser turned their "offer" down.

That tidbit, delivered with uncharacteristic restraint, was one of a career's worth of anecdotes Fraser recounted in an "exit" interview with CBC radio this week. The club eventually relented, allowing women to join. Fraser would go on to rock-star status -- flowers from people on the street, so the story goes.

I love the idea that a chartered accountant has achieved celebrity status -- it's oh-so Canadian that people on the streets would recognize the auditor general who turned the language of value-for-money audits into plain English.

And with such effect.

Who could forget the damning "broke every rule in the book" conclusion of her 2002 audit of three, untendered federal contracts delivered to Groupaction? Appalling, she said.

The cops agreed, putting the sponsorship scandal on a roll that would mow down a political fortress, and convict a bureaucrat and a couple of Liberal friends.

Next week, Sheila Fraser is stowing away her calculator, 10 years since she took over from Denis Desautels. She wants to get away from Ottawa, away from politics. Senate? "No, thank you."

While her profile and popularity with the public would make her a prime recruit for any political party, she's made it very clear that she's not for "that world."

By her own description, she simply did her job. But it was her interpretation of what was the job that made a difference.

The Office of the Auditor General is a "fundamental" piece of a democratic system -- holding government to account and delivering reliable analysis to Parliament, where MPs can fulfil their part as a check on power.

As with those who came before her, she ensures the $245 billion in program spending makes good use of the hard-earned money Canadians pay in taxes. But it wasn't good enough to have that official conversation with ministers, MPs and the research and political staff of parties with their own particular agendas.

Fraser took to heart the belief that she was the servant of the people. To do that well, she had to speak directly to citizens.

Canadians are taxpayers, she said. We have a high compliance with the tax law, which means that, on the whole, we follow the rules and pay what is the public's investment in good and necessary services.

Her peers note that it was not a revolution that brought engaging, blunt and clear narrative to the story of the numbers game in Ottawa. The argument is made that, reaching back more than 30 years, amendments to the act gave auditors general a new evaluative role in program review.

That changed the straight money-in/money-out tabulation and launched a process whereby departments would be called to task when rules were ignored and broken and when receipts went missing.

The word "probity" entered the lexicon of government accountability.

But it was the combination of the extraordinary issues that got dumped in her lap and the way she chose to deliver the goods to ordinary Canadians that made us all indebted to this farm girl from southwestern Quebec.

The infamous abuse of the public treasury to curry Liberal favour in Quebec set the tenor of her tenure, but it was by no means the last hot potato.

She rang the bell on privacy commissioner George Radwanski, who was found to have abused both the privileges and the power of his office.

She called out the former Liberal government on its gross underestimate of the costs of the long-gun registry -- $1 billion versus $2 million.

And sprinkled among the indictments -- landmines for an accountant whose decimal points are a fraction off -- were the condemnations for a country that permits Third World conditions to persist in native communities.

Some have pushed back. But the solid, trustworthy calculus of a servant of the people, the dogged attention to detail, proved impenetrable.

Sheila Fraser retires with her reputation and integrity intact after a decade of putting herself in the crosshairs of formidable political interests.

Her successor has not been named. She leaves at a time when public watchdogs and their unvarnished advice have proven expendable to a government that bridles at dissent.

I expect she made recommendations for the short list. The Harper government, which for many years traded on Fraser's insight, should pay her the final compliment in respecting her astute advice.

catherine.mitchell@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 27, 2011 A15

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