Canada’s auditor general Michael Ferguson has died at 60

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Michael Ferguson, Canada’s auditor general, has died, his office confirmed to CBC News on Saturday. He was 60. 

« Mr. Ferguson had been undergoing treatment for cancer since last November, » the Office of the Auditor General of Canada said in a statement. « Unfortunately, the treatment was unsuccessful. He passed away surrounded by his family in Ottawa. »

« Much appreciated by his staff and respected by parliamentarians and government officials alike, Mr. Ferguson will be remembered by all those who had the pleasure of knowing him as a humble, compassionate and thoughtful man, » the statement continued. 

Ferguson had cancelled his media appearances for his 2018 fall reports due to health concerns. 

He was appointed as Auditor General of Canada in November 2011, and his term was set to end in 2021. 

Prior to his federal role, he served in various positions in the New Brunswick provincial government, including a stint as its auditor general. 

Ferguson was not shy about expressing his frustrations. In the summer, he told CBC Radio’s The House he was getting tired of filing annual reports recommending reforms to the way the government does business — only to see those recommendations disappear down the memory hole afterward.

Some of the issues he paid particular attention to were the Phoenix pay system, Indigenous services and sexual misconduct in the military.

« He cared deeply about conducting audits that brought value to the public service, always for the greater good of Canadians, » the Office of the Auditor General of Canada said. Ferguson is survived by his wife and sons.

The auditor general is an officer of Parliament appointed for a 10-year, non-renewable term. He or she is responsible for auditing and providing reports to Parliament on federal government departments and agencies, Crown corporations, and other national organizations.

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Auditor General of Canada Michael Ferguson has died

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Michael Ferguson, the auditor general who relentlessly pressed federal governments to improve services for Canadians, has died.

“Mr. Ferguson had been undergoing treatment for cancer since last November,” the Office of the Auditor General of Canada said in a statement Saturday. “Unfortunately, the treatment was unsuccessful. He passed away surrounded by his family in Ottawa.”

Auditor General Michael Ferguson in a file photo from May 2018.
Auditor General Michael Ferguson in a file photo from May 2018.  (Sean Kilpatrick / THE CANADIAN PRESS)

“Much appreciated by his staff and respected by parliamentarians and government officials alike, Mr. Ferguson will be remembered by all those who had the pleasure of knowing him as a humble, compassionate and thoughtful man,” the statement added. “He cared deeply about conducting audits that brought value to the public service, always for the greater good of Canadians.”

Ferguson was appointed Canada’s auditor general in November, 2011, after serving as New Brunswick’s auditor general and deputy finance minister.

During his tenure, he repeated slammed federal governments for being self-serving and blind to the needs of Canadians.

“Over the years, our audit work has revealed government’s lack of focus on end-users, Canadians, “ Ferguson noted in his 2016 report.

In a statement, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau praised Ferguson for a “lifetime of exemplary service to Canadians.”

“We will remember him for his tireless dedication to promote a transparent, open government that is accountable to Canadians,” Trudeau added. “His important work over the past seven years as Auditor General has helped strengthen our democracy and maintain the integrity that Canadians expect from our public institutions.

In his last report in the fall of 2018, Ferguson trashed the Liberal government’s handling of the Air Force’s aging CF-18 fighter jets. He described the government’s $3-billion plan to boost the jets as ineffective, noting a lack of technicians to service the planes and a lack of pilots to fly them.

Ferguson went out of his way to avoid the personal spotlight, but his reports on how well the government delivered services were sharp, critical and to the point, according to the Star’s Ottawa bureau chief, Susan Delacourt.

He wasn’t one to mince words. After releasing his report in November, 2017, he sharply criticized the Liberal government at a press conference for its poor performance in delivering services.

“I keep delivering the same message — that the government doesn’t understand the results from the citizens’ perspectives,” Ferguson said. “It’s possible that our message of citizen-centred service delivery has been heard at the individual program level. However, we see no signs of it being picked up government-wide.”

Ferguson had a shaky start to his tenure, when it was learned that he couldn’t speak French. The Conservative government at the time used its majority to approve his appointment after Liberal MPs walked out of the House of Commons en masse, insisting that the auditor general must be bilingual.

Ferguson promised he would learn French, and he did.

In the meantime, his audits revealed how the Canada Revenue Agency treated wealthy tax cheats with kid gloves while bearing down on regular taxpayers, how the federal government is blind to the economic gaps between First Nations people on reserves and other Canadians, and how successive governments turned a new pay system for bureaucrats into a $1.2-billion mess.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said Ferguson will be “sorely missed.”

“Michael Ferguson was a force to be reckoned with, helping to ensure that government worked in the best interest of Canadians,” Singh said in a statement.

With files from Ilya Banares

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Canada’s auditor general Michael Ferguson has died at 60

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Michael Ferguson, Canada’s auditor general, has died, his office confirmed to CBC News on Saturday. He was 60. 

« It is with profound sadness that we must inform you that Mike Ferguson, the Auditor General of Canada, has passed away, » the statement passed on to CBC News reads.

« Over the past seven years, Mike has led our organization with compassion for everyone, and he was convinced of the great value of this office’s work. »

The statement did not provide information on the cause of his death, but a spokesperson in his office later confirmed he died after battling cancer for the past few months.

Ferguson had cancelled his media appearances for his 2018 fall reports due to health concerns. 

He was appointed as Auditor General of Canada in November 2011, and his term was set to end in 2021. 

Prior to his federal role, he served in various positions in the New Brunswick provincial government, including a stint as its auditor general. 

Ferguson was not shy about expressing his frustrations. In the summer, he told CBC Radio’s The House he was getting tired of filing annual reports recommending reforms to the way the government does business — only to see those recommendations disappear down the memory hole afterward.

Some of the issues he paid particular attention to were the Phoenix pay system, Indigenous services and sexual misconduct in the military.

The auditor general is an officer of Parliament appointed for a 10-year, non-renewable term. He or she is responsible for auditing and providing reports to Parliament on federal government departments and agencies, Crown corporations, and other national organizations.

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Ontario Auditor General Report finds Wynne’s ‘free’ tuition scheme far more expensive than promised

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Former Liberal premier Kathleen Wynne’s signature “free” college and university tuition plan could soon cost $2 billion annually, a staggering 50 per cent higher than previous estimates, the provincial auditor general has found.

Although the program, which will soon cost taxpayers $650 million more a year than the old grant-and-loan system, was designed to help students from low-income families, there is little evidence that that is happening.

Former Premier Kathleen Wynne’s “free” college and university tuition plan could soon cost $2 billion annually, a staggering 50 per cent higher than previous estimates, the provincial auditor general has found.
Former Premier Kathleen Wynne’s “free” college and university tuition plan could soon cost $2 billion annually, a staggering 50 per cent higher than previous estimates, the provincial auditor general has found.  (Richard Lautens / Toronto Star file photo)

“We concluded that a large portion of the new OSAP recipients were already attending college of university — and paying for it by themselves or with loans — even before they qualified for the new aid,” auditor general Bonnie Lysyk said Wednesday.

In her two-volume 1,128-page annual report to the legislature, Lysyk examined a slew of programs, finding cost overruns and political meddling at transportation agency Metrolinx, problems for patients without private insurance paying for health services when traveling even within Canada, and ineffective development of Toronto’s waterfront.

The watchdog also found “most” elevators in Ontario do not meet safety standards and there are few penalties for scofflaw operators.

She said the Technical Standards and Safety Authority (TSSA), which oversees everything from elevators to ski lifts to amusement park rides, “seldom takes the initiative to protect public safety.”

Her conclusions from 15 “value-for-money” audits are aimed more at the transgressions of Wynne’s government than those of Premier Doug Ford’s administration, which was only sworn in on June 29.

“A central finding in almost all of our audits this year this year was that spending of public monies did not consistently result in the cost-effective achievement of anticipated program benefits or the the proactive addressing of program risks,” she said.

Ontario’s revamped student aid system, which provides low-income students with non-repayable grants to cover tuition and often more, was intended to increase access to college and university for under-represented groups. It reformed the old system which provided a combination of grants and loans.

The Ministry of Education had estimated that axing post-secondary tax credits “was expected to more than offset any increased costs” of the changes, but the auditor found that the “uptake to financial aid to date … has exceeded expectations” and will, in fact, cost many millions more each year.

Worse, because the ministry only “tracks limited data about (student aid) recipients …, (it) cannot determine whether the latest changes actually helped improve access to post-secondary education,” says the report, noting overall enrollment has remained roughly the same.

Lysyk also found that one-third of mature students — those who have been out of high school for four years or more — qualified for grants, but the ministry “did not know whether the students actually needed OSAP support.”

Unlike students who attend university straight out of high school, the income of the parents of mature students isn’t taken into consideration, even if they still live at home and their family earns more than $200,000 a year.

On Waterfront Toronto, Lysyk blasted the joint federal-provincial-municipal agency for failing to deliver on its mandate to transform the city’s 2,840-acre lakefront.

“Waterfront Toronto has directly developed only about 55 acres, or five percent of the total publicly owned developable land in the waterfront area, and provided development funding to other organizations for revitalization projects for just 151 acres, or about 14 per cent, since its inception (in 2002),” she said.

The auditor also questioned the wisdom of the agency’s agreement with Google-run Sidewalk Labs to developed a wired “smart city” on waterfront lands, including privacy concerns over the use of residents’ data.

“In order to protect the public interest, this situation does deserve government study before any long-term commitment is reached with Sidewalks Labs,” advised Lysyk.

As well, she expressed concern about the earmarking of $453 million toward port lands flood-protection at the mouth of the Don River.

On Metrolinx, Lysyk maintained that the agency’s 2016 decision to locate GO Transit stations at Kirby and Lawrence East was influenced by the then Liberal government and by city hall.

“Metrolinx’s initial business cases concluded that the costs and disadvantages of the two stations significantly outweighed their benefits,” said Lysyk, noting elected officials “made it clear they wanted these stations.”

Lysyk expressed concern about OHIP coverage for Ontarians when they travel abroad and even to other provinces.

“Ontario patients who may require emergency health services while in other countries … (are) reimbursed just five cents for every dollar that they were billed by a foreign physician or hospital under the out-of-country travellers program,” she said.

More surprisingly, she found that even travelling within Canada could be costly in the event of a health emergency, because the full cost of services in other provinces or territories is not always covered.

Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy

Robert Benzie is the Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief and a reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robertbenzie

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Ontario auditor general report will be gift to Doug Ford government

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Ontario’s spending watchdog is expected to provide plenty of ammunition to Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives on Wednesday when she reveals her latest findings of government waste and inefficiency.  

At noon, auditor Bonnie Lysyk will release her annual report investigating whether taxpayers are getting value for money from 15 government programs or projects, including Metrolinx light-rail transit construction and the Darlington nuclear plant refurbishment. 

Because the auditor is probing spending that was largely done during the previous Liberal government’s time in power, the PC government will almost certainly greet her recommendations with enthusiasm. 

« Any time the auditor general does the value-for-money audits, you want to look where government can do things better, » said Treasury Board President Peter Bethlenfalvy, the cabinet minister who keeps an eye on spending.  

Ford has already indicated he is a fan of Lysyk’s work. Throughout the election campaign, he frequently referenced last year’s auditor’s report, in which the auditor tallied waste worth about $1 billion by looking at just 14 programs.

Although that money was spent over a period of much more than one year, Ford used Lysyk’s report as evidence that he could easily find the $6 billion a year in efficiencies he’d promised on the campaign trail without cutting any jobs. 

Ontario Premier Doug Ford has pointed to last year’s auditor general report as evidence that he could find $6 billion a year in spending efficiencies without cutting any jobs. (Christopher Katsarov/Canadian Press)

Lysyk has already published a list of the 15 audits she will release on Wednesday. 

Metrolinx, the provincial agency that runs GO Transit and oversees major transit construction projects in the Greater Toronto Area, goes under the auditor’s microscope twice.

Lysyk will report on Metrolinx’s controversial plans to build two new GO stations: one in Vaughan (at Kirby) and another in Scarborough (at Lawrence East). The planned Kirby stop is in the riding previously represented by former Liberal transportation minister Steven Del Duca. The Lawrence East stop is to be part of Mayor John Tory’s SmartTrack plan.

The auditor is also probing how Metrolinx is managing the $5.3 billion Eglinton Crosstown project and other unspecified light-rail transit (LRT) lines. 

The « use of consultants and senior advisers » by the provincial government gets its own chapter in the auditor’s report. Lysyk is assessing whether ministries are ensuring « efficient service delivery » by these external contractors.  

‘Any time the auditor general does the value for money audits, you want to look where government can do things better,’ said Peter Bethlenfalvy, president of the Ontario Treasury Board, in an interview Tuesday. (CBC)

With health care accounting for more than 40 per cent of the provincial budget, health care programs always catch the auditor’s eye. This year, she is examining the timeliness of MRI and CT scans in hospitals, OHIP’s spending on out-of-province and out-of-country medical treatment, and the Health Ministry’s program to help people with disabilities purchase devices like wheelchairs and hearing aids. 

Other programs to be audited include: 

  • Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP), including whether student loans are collected promptly when due.
  • Waterfront Toronto, including its management of more than $1.5 billion in revitalization funding.
  • Legal Aid Ontario and the cost effectiveness of its delivery of legal services.
  • The Technical Standards and Safety Authority, the agency that inspects such public-safety concerns as propane storage and elevators.
  • Ontario Works, the social assistance benefit provided to about 450,000 people every month.

The auditor also examines government spending on advertising, and whether the party in power is using it for partisan purposes. Under former premier Kathleen Wynne, the Liberals weakened the auditor’s authority over ads, allowing the government to spend public money on ads that simply toot its own horn. It’s a move the Liberals may come to regret, now that the PCs are in government and in control of the province’s multi-million-dollar advertising budget.

The Ford government has already embraced Lysyk’s pre-election critique that the Wynne Liberals were low-balling the provincial deficit. Using the auditor’s accounting, the PCs say this year’s deficit is actually $14.5 billion, far more than the $6.7 billion the Liberals projected last March.

A significant portion of the deficit difference comes from the Liberals’ Fair Hydro Plan, which the PCs have adopted but are accounting for on the government’s books instead of on Ontario Power Generation’s.  

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Canada’s embassies and diplomats poorly protected despite warnings, auditor says

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Canada is not properly protecting diplomats and staff who face security threats at Canadian missions abroad, including many in locations at high risk of terrorist attacks, violence and espionage, the federal auditor general says.

Michael Ferguson’s audit of security at Global Affairs Canada’s embassies and missions found « significant » failings in many places that need immediate attention.

An audit of six medium- and high-threat missions found « significant vulnerabilities in perimeter security at all sites. »

Physical security, such as vehicle barriers, video surveillance, alarms and X-ray machines were missing or not working properly. At one of place Ferguson’s team spot-checked, the perimeter was determined in 2011 to have a « critical vulnerability, » but a site visit this year found this problem hadn’t been fixed.

« Overall, Global Affairs Canada had not taken all measures needed to keep pace with evolving security threats at its missions abroad, » Ferguson says in his report, tabled in Parliament Tuesday. « This audit is important because missions are exposed to a range of security threats. »

More than 7,800 staff members work at a total of 175 diplomatic and consular missions in 110 countries. In November 2017, more than half of the department worked in areas where political and civil unrest put their safety at risk.

Terrorist attacks in Europe, Africa and Asia as well as ongoing instability and armed conflict in the Middle East expose these staff members and diplomats to a wide range of security risks, which can vary and shift suddenly, the audit says.

Global Affairs is supposed to conduct threat assessments to identify risks for its missions every four years – and more frequently for higher-risk locations. More than a third of the missions the auditors checked had out-of-date assessments, including many in high- and critical-threat areas.

At four missions, the AG found no threat assessment at all.

Ferguson notes Global Affairs Canada did approve a plan in April, after much of his work was done, to hire more people to update these assessments.

Over the past decade, the department has received $652 million to improve safety and security at foreign missions. In 2017, the Liberals promised a further $1.8 billion in new funding over 10 years to bolster security at these missions.

But of the 78 construction projects underway to upgrade security, many were at least three years behind.

Funding decisions for major upgrades were based on insufficient information and also hadn’t involved the department’s head of security for two years. Toward the end of the audit in July, the department security officer was added to the committee that approves capital projects.

Most major construction projects started late or faced delays and were years behind schedule. Meanwhile, a quarter of the funding approved for these projects – $103 million – had not been spent, which resulted in the department having to get special permission to hold onto $82 million of it rather than returning it to the national treasury.

In addition, Ferguson’s office found that mandatory security training for staff working in dangerous locations was not being done, and nobody was tracking the work with an eye toward catching up. Despite funding having been made available in 2017 for this very purpose.

« Staff members working at these missions are exposed to a range of security risks. Those who had taken this training at selected missions told us they had found it beneficial to their personal safety, » the report notes.

In many of these areas, the AG found numerous problems had been flagged years ago, including with recommendations for dealing with them that just weren’t followed.

« We concluded that Global Affairs Canada did not fully meet its physical security needs at mission abroad to protect its staff and assets, » the report says.

In its responses to the recommendations, the department acknowledges the deficiencies, laid out plans to update its standards and procedures and to use the $1.8 billion approved last year to improve security of its missions, with timelines for completion ranging from December 2018 to 2020.

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