Auditors are untouchable in Ottawa - Macleans.ca

Auditors are untouchable in Ottawa

Why two partners from Deloitte command a lot of respect on the Hill

by
Sean Kilpatrick/CP

The Senate’s embarrassing string of expense scandals might have rocked Canadians’ collective faith in the reeling upper chamber, but it’s done wonders for a mostly invisible group of number crunchers. The powerhouse auditors at Deloitte, who’ve been charged with sorting out right from wrong in the ongoing investigation of four expense-happy senators, enjoy near invincibility in the nation’s capital. Only the cadre of embattled senators has questioned Deloitte’s wisdom, while virtually everyone else on Parliament Hill lines up behind the auditors.

After Senator Pamela Wallin reviewed the audit into her expenses, she called it a “fundamentally flawed and unfair process,” claiming vaguely that Deloitte applied new rules to expense claims that predate them. Those charges went unanswered for less than a day. Gerald Comeau, the chair of the Senate’s internal economy committee that’s behind the expenses probe, lauded Deloitte’s “tremendous work,” calling it “very professional and highly regarded.” Indeed, no one who’s not accused of wrongdoing has a bad thing to say about the venerable auditors, who appear as stalwarts of transparency and accountability. Likewise, few questions have been asked of Senate Finance officials who, behind the scenes, originally approved the bad claims.

Auditors have a long reputation as powerful characters in federal circles. Former auditor general Sheila Fraser was feared by Liberal and Conservative governments for the duration of her decade in office. She exposed the Sponsorship Scandal that tripped up the Liberals and eventually led to the government’s demise in 2006. Prime ministers and their front benches always responded to Fraser’s recommendations, and found themselves in hot water if they ignored her. Fraser’s successor, Michael Ferguson, initially took heat for his lacklustre French fluency. He’s since earned a reputation for competence, and his report on the government’s cost estimates related to the F-35 fighter jet had the government scrambling. Ferguson’s next target is the federal northern food subsidy program, Ottawa’s effort to manage sky-high food prices in Canada’s north.

Where auditors general differ from Deloitte is the public nature of their work. Fraser became a household name, and Ferguson is on his way to similar stature. All we know about Deloitte is that two partners, Alan Stewart and Gary Timm, are named in correspondence with Wallin’s legal counsel. The firm, which declined comment on the story, is otherwise largely anonymous, as far as the general public is concerned. That’s curious cover for a group of auditors playing such an integral role in reshaping, and possibly improving, an institution central to Canada’s parliamentary democracy.