When questions were raised this summer about potential legal ramifications to the handling of the G8 Legacy Fund, I emailed Lorne Sossin (a friend of the show) to get his thoughts. After the interim auditor general again mused of the “interesting debate” that could be had, I checked in with Dean Sossin again to see if he had anything more to add.
His responses to both my queries below.
I think this is one of those arguments that is technically sound (ie. the expenditures of the fund appear to exceed the legal authority) but an area courts would be wary to tread (ie. second guessing the judgment of ministers or Cabinet as to the scope of a spending envelope). This issue arose in the context of the sponsorship affair and Gomery Inquiry as well—how was it that the Government was able, in effect, to create a slush fund for expenditures on advertising subject to virtually no oversight? The answer there and perhaps here is that the impropriety of spending public money for partisan political ends justifies political accountability (and the Auditor General’s oversight in this regard seems to make the necessary point). A challenge to the expenditures in court (by an interested citizen’s group?) might be useful in keeping the spotlight on the question of political accountability, but otherwise would seem a second-best form of reviewing government spending decisions…
The only addition I would make is that aside from political accountability (Parliamentary committees, etc) the other important safeguard against improper diversion of public funds for partisan ends ought to be the politically neutral public service. Ned Franks has argued for senior public servants (Deputy Ministers, etc) to serve as “accountability officers” particularly with respect to compliance with policies and rules around public spending (http://www.irpp.org/po/archive/oct04/franks.pdf). Whether or not that is the optimal model, my point is that there need to be safeguards within the machinery of government spending that ensure the policy decisions which justifiably belong to Cabinet or Ministers are carried out in a fashion that does not overstep the legitimate uses of public funds.