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Graham White

Improving Accountability: Canadian Public Accounts Committees and Legislative Auditors by John J. Kelly and Hugh R. Hanson, Canadian Comprehensive Auditing Foundation, 1981, 132 p.

This is unquestionably one of the most important books on Canadian legislative institutions to appear in some time. The first research report of the non profit Canadian Comprehensive Auditing Foundation, this study examines in depth one of the key phases of the 'accountability loop' and proposes sixty-nine recommendations to improve the work of legislative Auditors and of PACs.

Authors John Kelly, an Assistant Auditor General of Canada, and Hugh Hanson, a consultant of wide government experience, set out to provide a work which was practical rather than theoretical. By and large they succeeded in producing a report which serves, in their phrase, as "an achievable first step-in rendering Auditors and Public Accounts Committees effective watchdogs of government spending.

The authors reviewed in depth, via both documentary analysis and personal interviews, the workings of all provincial and federal legislative auditors and of PACs in all jurisdictions save the Northwest Territories, which had no PAC, and Quebec, where the relevant committee had not met in more than five years to review the Auditor's report or the Public Accounts. (Predictably, this very fact was highlighted in press accounts of the report.) The resulting wealth of comparative data is well summarized and cogently analysed with a view to recommending the best approach to a wide range of concerns such as size of PACs, provision of research for PACs and the approval of Auditors' budgets.

All of the recommendations suggested in this report had been implemented in some Canadian jurisdiction and thus are of proven practicality and benefit. Kelly and Hanson are none the less sensitive that no one model of a PAC and an Auditor can meet the needs and circumstances of all Canadian jurisdictions and accordingly leave certain questions (substitution of membership for one) to be resolved within the traditions and particularities of individual legislatures.

Yet the report pulls no punches on what are seen as crucial points. The principal conclusion of the study is that "a number of legislatures in Canada have failed to provide themselves with all the means necessary to hold a government fully to account for its handling of public moneys" (p. 103). Nor does it avoid specific recommendations clearly at variance with established practice. By way of illustration, it proposes that the Chairman of the PAC be a Member of the Opposition, that no Ministers serve on PACs and that legislative Auditors be themselves audited by auditors from outside government; currently at least one or two Canadian jurisdictions operate in precisely the opposite manner.

Although the authors have done solid work in setting the foundations, it is well to recognize the scope of the report and the sorts of topics it refrains from considering. The analysis and the recommendations are largely limited to matters structural: the organization, powers and procedures of PACs and the legislative framework necessary for an independent, effective Auditor. The report does not come to grips with such crucial problems as how to mute partisanship in PACs and how to motivate elected Members to do the tough and typically politically unrewarding work necessary for a strong PAC.

Someone else can confront these questions: Kelly and Hanson have served parliamentarians well in their soundly argued, well written prescription for improving accountability.

Graham White, Clerk Assistant, Legislative Assembly of Ontario

Canadian Parliamentary Review Cover
Vol 4 no 4

Last Updated: 2020-03-03