The Green Party of B.C. believes governments should embrace accountability and always be open to new ideas. Not only do robust accountability structures allow citizens to keep an eye on what their government is doing; unfettered, expert critiquing of government practice can inform political parties—especially parties in power—of changes they might need to make in how they do things and why.
Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely, Lord Acton said. We might add to that famous stricture that secretive and secluded power corrodes from the inside.
That’s why I am concerned as Green Party of B.C. leader about the independence of two key offices: the office of the auditor general, which is presently filled by John Doyle, whose appointment it appears will not be renewed; and the auditor general for local governments, a new position, which was recently filled by Basia Ruta.
The office of the auditor general provides a prime example of a missed opportunity to strengthen accountability and seek fresh ideas. The auditor general’s traditional mandate has been to provide an opinion on the province’s financial statements. But since the mid 1990s that mandate has expanded to include performance audits of government programs. Performance auditing provides credible third-party comment on the ability of government to deliver results.
We should welcome this kind of expertise. But sometimes the very medicine that makes us healthy leaves a bad taste in our mouths. When the province’s auditor general suggested that the government’s reported deficit last year of $1.8 billion is actually $2.3 billion and that is not included in the government’s calculations, you can be sure he did not endear himself to the party in power. Especially when the government has committed itself to a "balanced budget" by February.
Doyle’s report on the deficit came on the heels of a release in early November of the travel expenses of MLAs, which the government was forced to issue after the AG’s scathing report this summer on the "chaotic" accounting procedures of the B.C. legislature. Those revelations stung both the governing Liberals and the opposition NDP, whose members sit on the secretive Legislative Assembly Management Committee, which is supposed to be keeping tabs on the legislature’s $70 million annual budget.
Hard as his correctives are to take for MLAs on both sides of the legislature, Doyle is simply doing his job. The Green Party of B.C. wants to make absolutely certain that his independence to do that job is not limited in any way. This brings me to two considerations:
- Funding to the office of the auditor general has been significantly restricted by the legislature for many years.
- The present AG’s six-year term is nearing its end. It is unfortunate that it seems that the government has made a decision not to extend Doyle’s term. The B.C. Green Party thinks it would be better for the decision about whether to extend the term to wait until after this spring’s provincial election. A six-month or one-year extension would allow the new government to consider Doyle’s request for a second term.
When politicians determine appointments of offices like the auditor general, there is the potential that politics may impair the AG’s ability to provide comment that is and is perceived to be independent.
Ruta will begin her duties as auditor general for local governments in January, but in my mind there is already a question about the independence of her office. The position she steps into was not established as an independent office of the legislature; rather she will be reporting directly to Minister of Community, Sport and Cultural Development Bill Bennett. That, in the view of the Green Party of B.C., places limits on her ability to act and could subject her to political interference.
The Green Party will encourage the B.C. legislature to:
- Adequately fund the office of the auditor general to meet its mandate for providing constructive comment on the performance of government programs and government itself.
- Ensure decisions on term renewals of independent officers of the legislature are made at least one year prior to a scheduled provincial election or delayed until after an election.
- Extend future terms to between eight and 10 years to allow for greater independence of such offices and a longer time frame for independent officers of the legislature to build capacity within their offices.
- Remove the appointment of the auditor general from politicians. B.C. Greens would like to see the creation of an independent commission that appoints the auditor general and all independent officers of the legislature that have interpretation and enforcement powers with respect to the public and the government in its widest form.
- Move responsibility for performance auditing of municipal government to the office of the auditor general.
The Green party is determined to seek out fresh new ideas to make better use of existing government resources. Independent offices of the legislature are one component of this strategy.