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New audit committee will bolster Senate accountability, transparency: Senator Wells
October 28, 2020
image David M. Wells
David M. Wells
C - (Newfoundland and Labrador)

Earlier this month, senators unanimously agreed to create a new committee on audit and oversight that will be responsible for reviewing and publicly reporting on the Upper Chamber's spending.

The Senate’s Standing Committee on Audit and Oversight was created in response to the auditor general’s report of 2015. It is a strong step forward that provides long-needed oversight of the Senate's full budget, which is in excess of $115 million. The committee will also establish and oversee an internal auditor position something that the Senate lacked.

The committee will be unique in three significant ways. First, it will include non-senators in its membership. Second, it will permit dissenting opinions of any committee member in its reports to the Senate a first for the Upper Chamber. Third, and perhaps the most important point, is that the committee will have audit powers and oversight of the entire Senate budget.

Many will recall that the former auditor general, the late Michael Ferguson, was tasked by the Senate to review its expenditures. While this request was all-encompassing, he chose only to review a small percentage of Senate expenditures comprising travel (roughly 2%), living expenses (roughly 2%) and office expenses (roughly 8%) with commentary in his report only on the first two.

From this two-year audit that cost Canadian taxpayers more than $25 million, less than 1% ($177,898) was required to be reimbursed to the Senate. No evaluation whatsoever was done by the auditor general on the other 88% of Senate expenditures covering the 12 directorates, including Finance and Procurement, Information Services and Human Resources. There was no evaluation of efficiencies or procedures, nor any assessment regarding how money was spent.

The new audit committee will conduct performance audits of Senate administration directorates to ensure that best practices are in place, that the systems in place for all Senate expenditures are compliant with the rules, and that there are regular system and compliance audits of senators' office, living and travel expenses which, again, are a very small percentage of the total Senate expenditure. The committee's reports to the Senate will be public.

There have been calls for the Senate to adopt a model similar to the United Kingdom’s Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, which arose out of that country’s parliamentary expense scandal of 2009. The authority monitors the expenses incurred by the members of the U.K. House of Commons. The Senate of Canada already publishes this information in detail as proactive disclosure on the Senate's website and has done so for several years.

The calls to establish an expensive, redundant system do not warrant further rational discussion. Unlike the Senate's newly established audit committee, the U.K. model does not review the systems or total expenditures of the U.K. House of Commons. Calls to adopt the U.K. model for Canada's Senate are not informed ones. Adopting the U.K. model would be two steps in the wrong direction from safeguarding taxpayers’ money.

The new audit committee will be the first parliamentary committee of its kind, with membership comprising of senators and independent external members. The establishment of this committee demonstrates the Senate's commitment to rigorous oversight while building the trust of the Canadian public. That the committee was unanimously adopted without further debate, objection or amendment speaks volumes about the Senate's readiness to boldly move forward.

While only senators on the committee will be able to vote, all members will be able to include dissenting opinions in the reports — an important element of transparency and a first of its kind for the Senate. All reports of the committee will be tabled in the Senate and therefore will be public.

Committee audits will be especially focused on risk areas; this was not the case in the auditor general's audit, which was forensic and limited, not in scope but in execution. Transparency and accountability have been at the centre of every decision thus far and will be at the centre of every decision moving forward.

Until the creation of the audit and oversight committee, the Senate did not have an internal auditor only an external auditor. Both will now advise the committee and it will be guided by best practices, efficient systems and the integrity that being in full public view brings.

The aim of the committee is to provide effective oversight of the Senate's expenditures. It will do this in a way that respects the taxpayer and meets the expectations of Canadians for a modern institution. This is an important and positive step forward towards greater trust, accountability and transparency of the Senate of Canada.

Senator David Wells represents Newfoundland and Labrador.

A version of this article appeared in the October 21, 2020 edition of The Hill Times.