In March 2007 the Public Accounts Committee adopted a Protocol for the
Appearance of Accounting Officers as witnesses before the Standing Committee on
Public Accounts. This article looks at the proposed protocol and the subsequent
debate about its implementation.
In a parliamentary democracy, as opposed to a presidential system, the
political executive receives its power to govern from the legislature.
The government needs the approval of Parliament to legitimate its policies
and activities, particularly for the expenditure of public funds. In return,
the Prime Minister and Cabinet must hold themselves accountable to Parliament,
and may continue to govern only as long as they retain the confidence
. Thus, while Parliament gives the executive the authority
to govern, it also serves as a check on the absolute or irresponsible use
of government power.1
In the introduction to his second, and final, report based on his review
of the Sponsorship Program, Justice John Gomery wrote that he had identified
a key failure in management of the Program: the failure of Parliament
to fulfill its traditional and historic role as watchdog of spending by
the executive branch of Government. This failure had its origins in the
paucity of information given to Parliament about the Program and in
The imbalance that has developed between the power of the executive branch
of the Government (in this case represented by the Prime Ministers Office)
and parliamentary institutions such as the Public Accounts Committee, which
should be holding the executive to account for its administration of the
To remedy this imbalance, Justice Gomery, proposed several measures including
two that would strengthen the capacity of committees of the House of Commons
in general and the Standing Committee on Public Accounts in particular.3
Furthermore, he coupled these proposals with two others that would explicitly
acknowledge and declare that Deputy Ministers and senior public servants
who have statutory authority and delegated responsibility are accountable
in their own right for their statutory and delegated responsibilities before
the Public Accounts Committee (Recommendation 4) and would create a mechanism
that would resolve disputes between deputies and their ministers in areas
in which deputies hold statutory authority, a measure having the additional
benefit of confirming the ultimate responsibility of minister and preserving
ministerial accountability (recommendation 5).
Measures very similar to Judge Gomerys latter two recommendations had
been called for by the Standing Committee on Public Accounts in its own
report on the Sponsorship Program a report that the Committee adopted
unanimously during the minority 38th Parliament and tabled in the House
of Commons almost one year earlier in June 2005.4
In February 2006, the Government tabled bill C-2, the Federal Accountability
Act which (among other things), proposed to amend the Financial Administration
Act so as to designate a senior official in each department and crown agency
(most probably the deputy minister or the chief executive officer) as an
accounting officer. This bill received Royal Assent in December that same
year. The Financial Administration Act is thus now amended by the addition
of a new section 16.4 that provides that accounting officers are accountable,
within the doctrine of ministerial accountability before the appropriate
committees of the Senate and House of Commons to answer questions related
to the following management responsibilities:
the measures taken to organize the resources of the department to deliver
departmental programs in compliance with government policies and procedures;
the measures taken to maintain effective systems of internal control in
the signing of the accounts that are required for preparation of the Public
Accounts (pursuant to section 64 of the FAA); and
the performance of other specific duties assigned to him or her by the
FAA or any other act in relation to the administration of the department.
Furthermore, the Financial Administration Act also now includes a conflict-resolution
mechanism for addressing situations where an accounting officer and his
or her minister disagree on the interpretation or application of a Treasury
Board policy, directive or standard:
the accounting officer shall seek written guidance from the Secretary of
the Treasury Board;
if, after the Secretary of the Treasury Board has provided guidance in
writing, the matter remains unresolved, the Minister shall seek a decision
from the Treasury Board; and
this decision would be shared with the Auditor General as a confidence
of the Queens Privy Council for Canada.
The June, 2005 report of the Public Accounts Committee report clearly demonstrated
that Members of Parliament from all parties had found that the doctrine
of ministerial accountability, as traditionally interpreted by the Privy
Council Office, was no longer serving Parliament or Canadians well and
that change was required.
The Committee was of the opinion that the roles and responsibilities of
ministers and deputy ministers required clarification in a way that would
ensure that both ministers and deputy ministers would know exactly where
they stood and who would be responsible, and thus accountable, for what.
Seen from this perspective, the doctrine of ministerial accountability
needed not to be rejected but to be clarified and thus strengthened.
This is what the adoption of an accounting officer regime would do.
In his Report, Justice Gomery wrote of a chain of accountability composed
of deputy ministers, the Public Accounts Committee, the Treasury Board,
and the Office of the Auditor General. Together, the links in this chain
should provide a coherent system for the control of public expenditures,
and in such a way that the roles and actions of the participants complement
and reinforce each other.5 Justice Gomery observed, however, that this
was not the case. Two of the links in the chain in particular the Public
Accounts Committee and Treasury Board were weak when they ought to be
if not amicable, then at least collaborative partners to ensure that they
achieve their common goal of probity in financial management.6 The Treasury
Board and the Public Accounts Committee must, he concluded engage in
dialogue, not confrontation.7
As a Member and Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, I agree fully with
these particular recommendations of the Gomery report, and although the
subsequent amendments in the Federal Accountability Act were modified slightly
from the Gomery recommendations, I do support those particular provisions
of the Federal Accountability Act.
Once the Federal Accountability Act was proclaimed, the Public Accounts
Committee determined that a protocol was required to support deputies and
agency heads in their new role of accounting officers. In this regard
the Committee sought and received the assistance of Dr. Ned Franks, Professor
Emeritus at the Faculty of Political Science, Queens University. The Committee
also attempted to engage the Treasury Board Secretariat in the preparation
of this protocol.
Dr. Franks words struck a chord among Committee Members, who realized
Apart from guidance given by the Privy Council Office, there were no instructions
from Parliament itself to deputy ministers and other public servants to
assist them during appearances before committees of the House of Commons;
Public service witnesses before the Public Accounts Committee were sometimes
uncertain about what was expected of them and, on occasion, worried that
they might be subject to unreasonable treatment;
The accounting officer designation was new and untested before parliamentary
committees in general and the PAC in particular; and
If the Committee did not step forward and initiate the development of a
protocol, or set of rules, to govern the appearance of accounting officers
before it, nothing was likely to happen.
After a number of hearings, an acceptable protocol was prepared which spoke
to the concerns of Members of Parliament and to those held by senior public
servants. It made clear that Committee hearings with accounting officers
would stay firmly within the limits of accounting officer responsibilities
as set forth in the amendments made to the Financial Administration Act.
The Protocol instructs the Chair of the PAC to intervene if accounting
officers are being subjected to areas of inquiry unrelated to their responsibilities
and provides guidance to Committee Members on the role that they were expected
to play. The Protocol also specifies, for the benefit of all, that the
role of the Public Accounts Committee is not to critique policy but to
concentrate on issues of financial management, control, and accountability.
The Committee thus sought to allay, through the Protocol, any misgivings
or fears that accounting officers might have in their appearances before
On the other hand, the Protocol was equally clear that accounting officers
hold certain statutory and delegated authorities in their own right and
that they not their ministers could expect the Committee to hold them
not their ministers accountable before it for the use of these authorities
(which are largely set forth in the Financial Administration Act, but are
also found in the Public Service Employment Act and the Official Languages
Act).8 Furthermore, the Protocol makes it plain that the Committee expects
that even if an accounting officer is transferred to another department
or agency of government, or retires, he or she can still be held for account
before the Committee for decisions taken under his or her watch.
To sum up, the Protocol reflects a balance between the responsibility of
the Committee and its Members to hold accounting officers to account before
them for their financial management responsibilities and the assurances
needed by accounting officers that they will not be subject to questions
of policy, which of course is the sole responsibility of the minister.
Regrettably, however, the Committees plea for a cooperative approach with
Treasury Board Secretariat appears to have, at least for the moment, fallen
on deaf ears. The Committee did not hear back from Treasury Board Secretariat.
Instead, Privy Council Office posted its own version of a protocol in the
form of guidance for accounting officers on its website. Despite the wording
in the Federal Accountability Act, this document maintains the PCO traditional
position that deputy ministers and accounting officers appear before parliamentary
committees exclusively in support of their ministers accountability, period.
If this interpretation is correct, then the question that begs a response
is what was the purpose of enacting Section 16.1 of the Federal Accountability
This leaves me wondering how a minister can be held accountable before
a committee for responsibilities he or she does not have. The PCO document
also reflects an odd and somewhat troubling belief that Privy Council Office
and not parliamentarians determine the rules and procedures for parliamentary
committee hearings. These decisions are for Parliament and Parliament
On May 15th, the House of Commons laid the matter to rest. A motion concurring
in the protocol of the committee was passed and hence the protocol has
the same force and effect as a standing order of the House of Commons.
Any accountability officer appearing before the Public Accounts Committee
will be bound to follow the rules and protocol established by Parliament,
not those established by Government.
Fortunately, despite the actions and protests of both the Privy Council
and Treasury Board Secretariat, there are many areas in which both the
Privy Council Office document and the Committees Protocol are in agreement.
This offers the prospect that the Committee and the Treasury Board Secretariat
can, and hopefully will, continue a dialogue on this issue, one that I
consider vitally important to the administration of the Government of Canada.
1. Robert J. Jackson and Doreen Jackson, Politics in Canada: Culture, Institutions,
Behaviour and Public Policy, fifth Edition, Prentice-Hall, Scarborough,
Ontario, 2001, p. 290
2. Commission of Inquiry into the Sponsorship Program and Advertising Activities,
Restoring Accountability: Recommendations, Ottawa, February 2005 p. 3.
3. Ibid., recommendations 1 and 3.
4. House of Commons Standing Committee on Public Accounts, 10th report,
37th Parliament, 1st Session.
Restoring Accountability, p. 114.
Ibid., p. 115.
7. Ibid., p. 116.
8. For those who are concerned that this might detract from ministerial
accountability, it is worth pointing out that the
Act provides a dispute-resolution mechanism that gives the Treasury Board
(a Cabinet Committee) the final say in any potential disagreements with
their accounting officers in areas of the latters responsibilities.