Government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic

Opening Statement to the Standing Committee on Finance

Government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic

12 May 2020

Sylvain Ricard, Fellow Chartered Professional AccountantFCPA, Fellow Chartered AccountantFCA
Interim Auditor General of Canada

Mr. Chair, thank you for inviting us to discuss the role of the Auditor General in examining the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. With me today is Andrew Hayes, Deputy Auditor General and Interim Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development.

We appreciate the opportunity to be here today, and I would like to thank members of Parliament, their staff, and all the staff of the House Administration who have been working to ensure that standing committees can continue to operate. In these challenging times, I want to acknowledge the commitment and engagement of Canadians as they deal with this pandemic, including members of the federal public service and my office’s staff.

Mr. Chair, the Office of the Auditor General of Canada has received 3 requests for audits from the House of Commons since Parliament resumed in January. We have informed the Speaker of the House that we will do these 3 audits.

First, on January 29, the House of Commons adopted a motion calling on my office to conduct an audit of the government’s Investing in Canada plan and to report our findings no later than 1 year following the adoption of the motion.

Then, on March 13, an order made by the House of Commons called on my office to conduct an audit of special warrants that could be issued under the Financial Administration Act and to report our findings no later than 1 June 2021. We understand that no special warrants have been issued to date.

Lastly, on April 11, the House of Commons adopted a motion requesting that we conduct an audit of the COVID-19 emergency response taken by the government and to report our findings no later than 1 June 2021.

On April 28, we informed the Speaker of the House that we are prioritizing COVID-19 audit work and the audit of the Investing in Canada plan. We also said that we will submit our findings to Parliament as soon we can complete the audit work.

With respect to the COVID-19 audit, we have analyzed the specific elements of the audit that the House of Commons requested, including the spending undertaken pursuant to the Public Health Events of National Concern Payments Act and the exercise of the provisions of the Financial Administration Act and the Borrowing Authority Act.

The leaders of our performance audit and financial audit practices have been working together to identify the areas that should be covered in our COVID-19 audit work. Of course, we have been monitoring the initiatives that the government has been introducing to respond to the pandemic. As part of our planning work, we have been analyzing spending related to protecting health and safety, support to individuals and businesses, and other liquidity support and capital relief.

We also believe that it is important to consider elements of emergency preparedness and early response actions. This may allow us to identify good practices and areas for improvement in case there is a future wave to this pandemic or to be ready for a future pandemic that may arise.

We welcome any input that the committee may have on areas that we could examine as part of our COVID-19 audit work.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have recognized that many departments and agencies are on the front line, and they are devoting tremendous amounts of time and resources to responding to the pandemic.

We are mindful of their operational realities, and we want to make sure that our audit work will not divert their attention away from the support and services that they need to provide to Canadians. We will exercise judgment and will strive to be as accommodating as possible when we ask for interviews and documents that are needed for our audit.

We have started to engage with senior public servants to explore ways to conduct our audit work while minimizing the impact on the operations of departments and agencies. We are also mindful of the challenges that come with physical distancing measures.

Going back to the April 11 order, I will make a few comments about my office’s resources. The order called on the government to take measures that are necessary to ensure that my office has sufficient resources to conduct the work that we have been asked by the House of Commons to do, including the COVID-19 audit and the audit of the Investing in Canada plan.

As members may know, our office has faced resourcing pressures in recent years. In 2017, the former Auditor General, Michael Ferguson, sought permanent additional funding through the government’s budget process. We received some of the funding that we requested in the 2018 federal budget. We continued to pursue additional resources in the 2019 budget cycle but did not get any new funding at that time.

When we appeared before the Standing Committee on Public Accounts in May and June 2019, and again in February 2020, we told the committee that our limited resources meant that we had no choice but to decrease the number of performance audits that we conduct.

Ten years ago, we were completing about 27 performance audits every year. With our current resources, we expect to be able to deliver 14 performance audits each year.

Given the nature and extent of the work that we believe is required to conduct the audits of the Investing in Canada plan and the COVID-19 response, and in light of our limited resources, we had to revisit the timing for completing and reporting on our current and future performance audit work.

On that basis, we informed the Speaker of the House that we have had to delay all other performance audit work that is not related to the motions adopted by the House of Commons.

Let me be clear, decisions to postpone planned audit work are difficult to make. The topics that we select for our audits are important to parliamentarians and Canadians. Given our limited resources, we did not have the capacity to salvage some of the important audit work that we have now had to postpone. We don’t know when we will be able to get to that work.

We are ready to answer any questions the committee may have. Thank you.