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Manitoba's Year of the Audit

Auditors, ombudsmen can't solve every government problem

Deep in the Katz-Sheegl era in early 2013, I wrote for the Free Press about how Winnipeg faced an upcoming Year of the Audit. I argued city hall was drowning in audits and requests for more because council was too weak to do anything more decisive. I also implied councillors could get better results with more public disclosure, committee hearings or even a few staffing changes.

Two years later, the virus is spreading from city hall to the legislature. This mutation is even worse than the municipal strain. Unlike city hall, Manitoba has a broader range of neutral offices to punt issues to, but the effect is the same.

Opposition Leader Brian Pallister recently called for a stadium audit, and now he's calling for an ad audit -- after promising to run all government ads by the auditor if elected. This week, the Manitoba Liberal Party called for a public inquiry into Child and Family Services. Meanwhile, Premier Greg Selinger and Infrastructure Minister Steve Ashton have asked the provincial ombudsman to look into Ashton's role in allegations of a bid scandal.

Manitoba's officers of the legislature aren't a dumping ground for political trash, nor are they high priests hired to offer absolution. They have specific roles, and it's a systemic failure if MLAs are too cynical to respect those roles.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/6/2015 (822 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Deep in the Katz-Sheegl era in early 2013, I wrote for the Free Press about how Winnipeg faced an upcoming Year of the Audit. I argued city hall was drowning in audits and requests for more because council was too weak to do anything more decisive. I also implied councillors could get better results with more public disclosure, committee hearings or even a few staffing changes.

Two years later, the virus is spreading from city hall to the legislature. This mutation is even worse than the municipal strain. Unlike city hall, Manitoba has a broader range of neutral offices to punt issues to, but the effect is the same.

EY auditor Mark single (front) and former city auditor Brian Whiteside present an audit at city council.

JASON HALSTEAD / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

EY auditor Mark single (front) and former city auditor Brian Whiteside present an audit at city council. Purchase Photo Print

Opposition Leader Brian Pallister recently called for a stadium audit, and now he's calling for an ad audit — after promising to run all government ads by the auditor if elected. This week, the Manitoba Liberal Party called for a public inquiry into Child and Family Services. Meanwhile, Premier Greg Selinger and Infrastructure Minister Steve Ashton have asked the provincial ombudsman to look into Ashton's role in allegations of a bid scandal.

Manitoba's officers of the legislature aren't a dumping ground for political trash, nor are they high priests hired to offer absolution. They have specific roles, and it's a systemic failure if MLAs are too cynical to respect those roles.

For example, the ombudsman's office exists to respond to citizen inquiries about information access, fairness and administrative accountability, not questions of political ethics. So Ashton and Selinger's decision to punt their little problem to the ombudsman reeks of political gamesmanship, since that office doesn't have all the tools needed to condemn or exonerate Ashton — which probably explains why the issue was punted there. It's a sick, slick and greasy move.

But take the poison out of that venom, and that criticism could cut both ways. To Manitoba's opposition parties, I'll offer the same critique I gave to city hall; 90 per cent of what would be investigated if they get their way needs more change, not more study.

When I made this point on social media the other day, a Manitoba Liberal activist made the seemingly reasonable argument more audits were necessary to help decide on the best course for reform. But again, as at city hall, this speaks to growing public ignorance about the limits of auditing.

To be clear: the auditor general function is important. I literally read value-for-money audits for pleasure. One of my biggest career mistakes was walking away when an auditors' office tried to poach me. Hell, I'll say it: Auditors, I love you.

But don't let your love be blind. Just as the ombudsman's office is the wrong vehicle to investigate an alleged abuse of political power, audits are an equally poor substitute for actual political leadership. After all, there's no pre-fabricated blueprint for a better-everything waiting on every auditor's desk. Auditors and ombudsmen don't govern; governments do.

Because auditors are paid to speak in the language of hindsight, their reports tend to have 20/20 vision about past mistakes. But audits aren't infallible when it comes to the politics of solving broader social problems. Officers of the legislature are also prone to ideological influences or management fads, just as any other humans are. One recent auditor's report in one province called for more public-private partnerships, while another called them overrated. Et cetera.

That's why we have a democracy, not an auditocracy. If Pallister is elected next year, he'll be accountable for how he spends public ad dollars, not the provincial auditor. Any honest observer knows Manitoba's Child and Family Services model is broken. Liberal Leader Rana Bokhari's job will be to fix that quickly if she's elected, not to hold an interminable inquiry to reaffirm how broken it already is.

In the absence of specific, plausible, credible ideas for change, opposition calls for further investigation are often confessions of a failure of imagination. And if ideas are hard to find, start with the same fallible tools an auditor would use if someone asked them to: thorough research, expert consultations and comparisons to other jurisdictions.

If Selinger and Ashton truly want exoneration, they could save time, money and silliness by simply releasing all of the pertinent records. Let the public decide if the proposed contract was handled fairly; then let independent legislative officers decide for themselves what's worth investigating, and by whom. Vice versa: If opposition parties want a shot at governing, it's time to stop using the daily audit as a substitute for fresh ideas and specific commitments.


Brian Kelcey is a political consultant, with experience as a senior political adviser at city hall and in the Ontario government.

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History

Updated on Monday, June 22, 2015 at 6:35 AM CDT: Replaces photo

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