Mitch Heimpel: The mob keeps better books than the feds kept for ArriveCan
The scathing ArriveCan report should matter. It probably won't.
By: Mitch Heimpel
I don't know how much auditor-general reports matter anymore.
They definitely used to. There was about a 10-year period there from that fortuitous moment Sheila Fraser took the microphone in the National Press Theatre in 2004 until sometime in the middle of the last decade when it felt as though every auditor's report at any level of government was a major news event.
When I worked for the opposition at the Ontario Legislature, the first Wednesday in December was the nearest thing to a workplace holiday because that was — and still is — when the auditor delivers the annual report.
But, somewhere between upside down bridges (that weren't really upside down, just one of the beams), energy prices and fighter jet procurement, the auditors got sloppy. Governments started challenging their findings.
They got less afraid to call out the auditor on areas where they exceeded their scope, or their math was frankly wrong. That's because, while Sheila Fraser also kicked off an era in which the auditor-general reports got more press, and took on the power to bring down governments, they also kicked off an era of attention-seeking from grandiose accounting bureaucrats who previously understood that their role was to be heard and not seen. They started acting like partisan actors. So, governments started treating them like partisan actors, and the public started ignoring them, the same way the public (perhaps wisely) ignores a lot of partisan actors.
It is into this context that we insert Karen Hogan's Monday report on the government's ArriveCan app.
Hogan looked into the government's troubled COVID-19 ArriveCan app and found nothing.
Actually nothing. The auditor’s exact words: "The Canada Border Services Agency’s documentation, financial records, and controls were so poor that we were unable to determine the precise cost of the ArriveCAN application." That means the accountant whose job it is to tell taxpayers what the government is spending money on, could not complete her task. Why?
Well, she also said, "That paper trail should have existed ... Overall, this audit shows a glaring disregard for basic management and contracting practices.” The auditor general could not tell taxpayers what the app cost, who decided who got paid, who did the work and what the money was ultimately spent on.
Mob contracts have more detail than the auditor general was able to piece together for her ArriveCan report. But, then again, mobsters keep two books.
The Canadian Border Services Agency appears to have burned, lost or had several goats eat pertinent records that pertain to Canadian taxpayers spending tens of millions of dollars on a phone app that never worked, kept no one safe, and has mostly come to symbolize an Ottawa where no one really feels accountable to anyone.
As someone who regularly sat down with the civil service to discuss transfer payment agreements a fraction of the size of the almost $60 million — or more, who knows?! — that is speculated to have been spent on ArriveCan, this fails to pass any kind of credibility test. ArriveCan was a priority government initiative in 2020 and 2021. We were trying to get the border back open. The tourism sector was on the brink. The idea that this was a couple rogue CBSA agents who were just funnelling taxpayer dollars to a firm with whom they had connections is a convenient, but drastically incomplete, telling of the story.
Tens of millions of dollars disappearing in a matter of weeks-to-months, and no one in the civil service asked a question? No one in the minister's office got a briefing on the app's progress? There isn't a single PowerPoint deck anywhere in the government? The civil service — especially the federal civil service — issues CYA memos to cover bathroom breaks but no one had any earthly idea what tens of millions of dollars going out the door on a priority government initiative were being spent on?
It is to laugh.
There is a lot in Hogan's report to chew on. Her performance on Monday was understated. It stands in stark contrast to Bonnie Lysyk's many performances as Ontario's auditor general, for example. Hogan mostly let the audience draw its own conclusions from the total lack of evidence she was used to prepare her report.
In a political context where a lot of Canadians want COVID-19 firmly in the rearview mirror, this risks becoming just another story about a directionless, unaccountable Ottawa culture. It should be more. Ministers have certainly lost their jobs for less. But the chances are very high this becomes more noise. Another verse for the choir of voices who believe the entire federal government is irredeemable. Another piece of straw on the camel's back.
That is its most likely legacy. Probably not damning enough to make Tories happy. Definitely not the kind of news a weakened, staggering Liberal government wants.
But, not definitive enough to change anything.
It's not 2004 anymore.
Mitch Heimpel has served Conservative cabinet ministers and party leaders at the provincial and federal levels, and is currently the director of campaigns and government relations at Enterprise Canada.
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