Auditor general flags foot-dragging by federal government in latest report

OTTAWA – If there was a common thread running through auditor general Michael Ferguson’s latest report to Parliament, it was foot dragging by the federal government.

Ferguson made no attempt Tuesday to hide his exasperation over the length of time it takes the government to act on recommendations like the ones he has just delivered.

“A look over the audits we are reporting on today show that in many cases, the results need to be improved,” he said during a news conference.

“Even when government identifies a problem, it takes too long to develop and implement solutions. The resulting delays can have significant impacts on Canadian, both directly and indirectly.”

The top theme of Ferguson’s fall audit was safety and security.

Among his findings:

— there are “significant weaknesses” in Transport Canada’s oversight of federally regulated railways;

— big question marks around the Harper government’s multibillion-dollar shipbuilding plan;

— loose borders that let dangerous people slip into Canada;

— problems with the way emergencies are handled on aboriginal reserves; and,

— a food inspection agency mired in confusion when it comes to major recalls.

Treasury Board President Tony Clement said he takes both the good and the bad of Ferguson’s findings.

“The government continues to ensure that taxpayers’ dollars are used responsibly and that Canadians can access effective and efficient programs and services when they need to,” he said.

“We take the safety and security of Canadians very seriously and that is why we are already acting on the auditor general’s recommendations.”

Opposition parties say the audit shows a government falling down on its responsibilities to keep its people safe.

“Ensuring our food is safe to eat, ensuring rail ways are safe — these are the basic responsibilities of any government,” New Democrat MP Malcolm Allen said in a statement.

“Unfortunately, Conservatives have become so mired in scandal, and so focused on their well-connected friends, that they are neglecting their basic responsibilities. Their attempts to cut corners are putting Canadians at risk.”

The Liberals say the report “clearly confirms that the Conservative government has continued to fail Canadians when it comes to ensuring basic safety measures, specifically regarding rail and food safety.”

Ferguson’s team completed its rail-safety audit only days before the deadly train disaster this summer in Lac-Megantic, Que. The auditors found a lack of knowledge of rail routes used to transport dangerous goods, too few safety auditors, poorly trained inspectors and an absence of follow-up or sanctions when safety problems are identified.

On shipbuilding, the auditor general’s office could not determine exactly how many ships will come out of the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy. The hard cost ceilings in place could also force the navy to reduce the fleet size below its needs.

Ferguson also found the Canada Border Services Agency doesn’t always get the information it needs to pinpoint threats, with data that can be incomplete or missing entirely. Nor can the RCMP say for sure what percentage of people get nabbed when they try to sneak across the border between regular ports of entry.

First Nations communities are at risk because many have outdated or missing emergency plans, the auditors found. There is confusion among Aboriginal Affairs officials who don’t always know who is supposed to be doing what during emergencies.

The report says the department doesn’t know whether First Nations reserves are getting the same level of emergency services as other parts of Canada.

Ferguson also took issue with the amount of money Aboriginal Affairs puts into its emergency management program. The audit says the $19-million annual budget isn’t enough and the department has had to scrounge hundreds of millions of dollars from other sources. That has meant some community infrastructure projects were cancelled or delayed to pay for emergencies.

On food safety, the auditor general said last year’s massive recall at XL Foods exposed serious shortcomings at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

The audit said the CFIA struggles to follow up on routine recalls and to manage major files.

Ferguson’s team also found widespread confusion among CFIA officials during emergencies.

During the XL Foods recall, for example, the company received multiple calls from CFIA officials who apparently didn’t know that their responsibilities had shifted during the emergency.

The report says all those calls created confusion and added to the company’s already considerable workload during the crisis.

It also found spotty records, the lack of a clear set of guidelines to ensure recalled products are properly disposed of and a failure to properly document the reasons for big decisions or communicate this information to key players during high-profile, emergency recalls.

“We concluded that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) did not adequately manage the food recall system,” the report says.

“Although the agency acted promptly to investigate food-safety concerns and verified that recalled products were removed from the marketplace, significant improvements to the food recall system were needed.”

The problems did not seem to be with the investigations themselves, or with getting food off of store shelves once a recall has been initiated. Ferguson’s team gives the CFIA high marks for its swift reaction when food-safety issues crop up.

The problem, according to the auditors, is with what the CFIA does once a recall is launched.

Health Minister Rona Ambrose says she accepts Ferguson’s findings.

“When it comes to food safety, this government is always looking for opportunities to improve,” she said in a statement.

“We have significantly strengthened the food-safety system, and we’ll continue to take action to protect consumers.”

The statement also made reference to recent actions by the federal government to improve food safety, including a plan to allow inspectors to fine businesses that fall short of meat-safety requirements.