Auditor-General fires parting shots on climate change, native policy

TheGlobeandMail.com – news/politics
Published Wednesday, May. 25, 2011.   Bruce Cheadle Ottawa – The Canadian Press

Auditor-General Sheila Fraser delivered a farewell address Wednesday in typical blunt-spoken fashion – warning government to start counting the costs of climate change and addressing the “quite tragic” living conditions of first nations.

Ms. Fraser’s eventful, politically charged, 10-year term as Auditor-General ends on Monday.

She’s legendary for blowing the lid off the sponsorship scandal under Jean Chrétien’s Liberals, famously stating in 2002 that civil servants “broke just about every rule in the book.”

And while the bespectacled, matronly 60-year-old said Wednesday she believes retired auditors-general should “sort of fade away,” she made sure to leave with a bang.

In a luncheon speech to hundreds of Ottawa power brokers and bureaucrats, Ms. Fraser said Canada has to start measuring the massive, long-term, financial hurdles of the future.

“With our aging population, the far-reaching impact of climate change and the need to replace much of our infrastructure, Canadians need to better understand the challenges ahead and how the public purse will be managed,” she said.

Many other countries and several provinces, she said, already provide long-term financial projections looking up to 75 years into the future.

“Without them, we cannot begin to understand the scale and complexity of the financial challenges ahead and the implication of policy choices – especially those related to spending, taxation, or debt reduction.”

Later, at her final news conference, Ms. Fraser connected the dots that a succession of tax-cutting federal governments – most notably Stephen Harper’s Conservatives – have been loath to acknowledge.

“It could be an increase in taxes, it could be a reduction in programs,” she said of future choices.

“But there’s really only two areas you can work on to be able to balance the budget – unless we decide we’re going to leave a debt for our children and grandchildren.”

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, speaking at a separate event in the capital, called Ms. Fraser a “very dedicated, diligent, public-spirited person.”

Mr. Flaherty said he’s met Ms. Fraser a number of times “to talk about government issues and she’s been very informed, very helpful, always had the best interests of the country in mind.”

The Quebec-born accountant is considered one of the most trustworthy and respected public officials – elected or otherwise – in Ottawa. Ms. Fraser was the third “most trusted Canadian” in a Readers Digest poll published this month (behind environmentalist David Suzuki and building contractor Mike Holmes).

So to hear her musing aloud about the potential need for future tax increases is a powerful indictment of the current political orthodoxy.

It wasn’t her only shot across the bow of the newly elected majority Conservative government.

Ms. Fraser was particularly pointed in her speech about two national policy areas: climate change and first nations.

“Canada needs a national, long-term, climate-change strategy – one that will allow us to mitigate and adapt to changes, to cover the costs and to engage Canadians in adjusting both their attitudes and their activities,” she said.

Ms. Fraser also noted that in the last decade her office has produced 31 audit reports on aboriginal issues, yet “too many first nations people still lack what most other Canadians take for granted.”

She called the lack of improvement in living conditions “truly shocking.”

“In a wealthy country like Canada, this is simply unacceptable.”

Such blunt talk is a rare commodity from appointed office holders in Ottawa. Ms. Fraser believes the choice of her permanent successor – who will be appointed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and then vetted by both the House of Commons and the Senate – likely won’t come until the fall.

An interim auditor-general will be named next week to release reports already prepared, including a controversial audit of government spending at last year’s G8 and G20 summits.

“Sheila Fraser has done an enormous service to this country, often times taking positions against a government that is all-too ready to attack anyone who criticizes its policies,” NDP Leader Jack Layton said.

Mr. Layton said he hopes the process to replace Ms. Fraser is “transparent and open” so that her successor “will be able to service the Canadian people as well as Sheila Fraser has done.”

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