So you guys? Turns out it’s really too bad that we’re not caring about the environment at the moment, because for the first time i can recall, the Auditor General is about to be almost entirely overshadowed by newbie environment commissioner Scott Vaughan, whose debut report begins with the words “the government cannot demonstrate that some of its key environmental programs are making a difference” and goes downhill – or uphill, depending on your perspective and whether or not you happen to be Jim Prentice – from there. Unsupported claims of reduced air pollution, severe weather alerts that can’t be trusted, $370 million ostensibly spent on green farming programs with nothing to show for it, sustainable development strategies that “aren’t working” – it just goes on and on. Meanwhile, over in the main report. Sheila Fraser finds the awarding of contracts for professional services ‘well done”. “Well done.” Seriously. Sure, she has a few nuggets of criticism scattered through the eight chapters – apparently, the report on health indicators is “of limited value to Canadians”, the Correctional Service “could be missing out on savings” and there are ‘significant issues” in the central oversight of small government organizations, but anyone hoping for shocking revelations of government waste and incompetence will be sorely disappointed. Which is good for the country, I’m sure, but not so much for us journalists. Thank goodness for the environment commissioner, y’all.
Anyway, after having spent a few minutes going through the two reports while scarfing down complimentary sandwiches from the lunch table — seriously, these people know how to throw a lockup; I don’t see why the folks at Finance can’t just hire the OAG to cater their events as a subcontractors – I’m now waiting for the embargoed press conference to begin – and what do you know; it just did.
Sheila Fraser – who looks exactly like she always does – gives a brief opening statement before handing the microphone over to Scott Vaughan, who then goes over his main findings, as noted above, paying special attention to the severe weather warning alerts, which, he says, just aren’t providing the needed information, despite the fact that Environment Canada “is considered a world leader”. Overall, he says “most of what we found was disappointing” – regulations not being enforced, clean air trust fund money being doled out to provinces with no guarantee that it will reduce pollution, the public transit tax credit, which – surprise, surprise – was found ineffective. He closes by noting that the government “has an important role to play” on the environment, but simply isn’t able to demonstrate any success. He hands the floor back to Sheila Fraser, who has to follow his litany of observed and audited failure with an overview of the importance of understanding federal-provincial transfer payments, as well as the health indicators report, which “falls short”, and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s management of plant imports, which, it’s worth pointing out, she found sorely wanting. She breezes past the chapters related to the Canada Revenue Agency – information technology and staffing – and spends a bit more time on Correctional Services, where overtime has increased, yet the number of inmates has remained constant and the government could possibly spend less on food and clothing. As for the small agencies and entities, she calls for ‘concrete action’ to fix various long-standing administrative problems before giving Public Works and Government Services a gold star for excellence in managing professional contracts, and opens the floor to questions. I wonder if she’ll get a single one.
First up: Allan Woods, who wonders where, exactly, the government came up with the numbers for projected emissions reductions via the public transit tax credit; Vaughan – who looks a little nervous — did someone remind him what happens to overly independent minded independent officers? – admits that he’s not sure. Oh, and there’s one for Sheila Fraser on the “trust funds” for provinces; she explains that the report was just to give parliamentarians a better idea of how this particular transfer system operates.
David Llundgren wonders whether there was any way that the public transit credit concept could have worked, and Vaughan veers away from the specifics — he calls it “disappointing,” but the reporter offers “colossal waste of money” as an alternative, to muted giggles from the audience, if not the environment commissioner, who reminds me of a very, very, very, very, very serious Michael Scott.
Global TV’s Peter Harris also can’t quite get his head around the wild off-ness of the transit tax credit – how could the government have been *that* wrong? Vaughan suggests that we might want to ask the government that question – oh, don’t worry, we will – but suggests that the forecasting model used by the department may have resulted in the disparity, which is particularly comforting when one realizes how much depends on the same government’s ability to forecast the fiscal future.
David Akin quizzes Fraser on her findings on the Canadian Food Inspection Agency — alien plant imports, remember? – and asks if she is disturbed by what she’s uncovered as far as inspection and management; she agrees that there are risks, and goes into a little more detail about her recommendations, but it’s fair to say that most of us are just waiting for her to finish so that someone can ask Vaughan another question.
That someone, it turns out, is Sun Media reporter Sim, who describes the environment report as “scathing”, and wonders if he was surprised at just how bad it was; Vaughan reminds him that this is his first report, but he admits – again – to having been “disappointed”. Fraser gets another question about her explainer trust-fund-based federal-provincial transfers from a French reporter – CBC, I think, but I can’t see who is at the microphone – and then back to Vaughan for yet another question along the same lines as the earlier ones: how – HOW – could the government have been so wrong? Which is, admittedly, a fair question, although I’m not sure if he can answer it, really. Vaughan notes that the analysis was flawed in one case, but on the transit credit, they – the government, that is – should at least get credit for adjusting the original forecast so radically downwards.
A French reporter asks Vaughan to answer the question of whether Canadians are getting value for the $635 million spent on the public transit tax credit – in French, that is – and he obligingly repeats his conclusion: for all that money, this was a “disappointing” result. Indeed. Apparently, in response to the criticism of the weather alert system, Environment Canada has assured the commissioner that most of the problems that he identified have already been fixed during the ISO process, and Vaughan once again tries to give the government credit for recognizing the problem with its original projection, which is a nice gesture, but seems unlikely to completely kill the story of the $635 million in pointless non-emission-reducing tax credits.
As for the findings on toxic substances, which in one case, increased threefold *after* it was declared as such, a reporter asks if he would go so far as to say the mismanagement may have led to an increase in cancer rates, which he won’t, although he notes that as a parent of a small child, he worries.
Bob Fife repeats the question about getting any value from the transit credit, and gets the same answer from Vaughan- and that’s it for the press conference. Wow, that went quickly. Only 45 minutes to go, and you’ll all be able to share in the boggling over the bus pass boondoggle, which – for the record – I’m not proposing as the official moniker, although if the alternative is something that ends in -gate, I’ll reconsider.