Toronto Star

AG criticism rolls in from all sides of political arena

- Martin Regg Cohn

In Canadian political culture, an auditor general is assumed to be a truth teller whose probes are beyond reproach.

Readers lap up their reports because the default assumption is corruption among politician­s and deception among bureaucrat­s. But no one should get a free pass — not journalist­s, not even auditors.

Newspapers regularly run correction­s, but what happens when an auditor goes awry? Not so much.

Which is why a couple of recent columns about Ontario auditor general Bonnie Lysyk have struck a chord after shining a light on her antics and tactics.

Wednesday’s column outlined the auditor’s controvers­ial demand that her staff make an early return to the office, in midsummer, in mid-pandemic, and allegation­s that medical and family accommodat­ions were rescinded.

Was Lysyk out of line, considerin­g that other white collar workplaces have allowed staff to work from home uninterrup­ted, given public health advice to reduce community transmissi­on of COVID-19? What did others do?

As a followup, I put the question Wednesday to Lysyk’s counterpar­t, Toronto auditor general Beverley Romeo-Beehler:

“I can confirm that my staff have been working remotely since mid-March. Staff will continue to do so until the advice of the chief medical officers (city, provincial and federal) changes,” Romeo-Beehler replied.

That’s not exactly third-party validation.

Apart from Romeo-Beehler’s response, I also received several unsolicite­d — and unusually biting — emails from a number of former politician­s, public servants and policy analysts after last week’s column questionin­g the value of Lysyk’s value for money audit of Ontario’s pandemic response. A few agreed to be quoted about their past encounters, after serving in cabinets of all three major parties.

Frances Lankin, a former NDP minister who more recently co-chaired a sweeping report on Ontario’s social services, and is now an independen­t senator, questioned Lysyk’s headline-hunting style:

“Her style, ego, and hubris is sometimes beyond belief … If you want to be a politician, run for office and take on the responsibi­lity of decision making directly. Bear the burden of that and enjoy your headlines, good or bad.”

Janet Ecker, a former Progressiv­e Conservati­ve finance minister, argued the role of an

auditor general is too important to be driven by cheap shots:

“Thank you for calling her out on her unprofessi­onal approach. It is too bad because this approach completely undermines the office’s reputation with government officials, the public and its effectiven­ess. For an (auditor general) to do a good job (and it is a very necessary job!), there has to be trust and accuracy. This kind of repeated ‘gotcha’ approach with the previous government and the current one, turns the office into just another government opposition critic. Particular­ly when it is accompanie­d by so much factual inaccuracy.”

David Peterson, the former Liberal premier who later

chaired the Pan Am Games and is now vice-chair of Torstar, cited the fiasco of false accusation­s by Lysyk, which cried out for a retraction:

“In the Pan-Am Games, she slagged the reputation­s of very good people, accusing them of hiding the hard drives. Subsequent­ly, the privacy commission­er proved her wrong. She should have apologized to the people whose reputation­s she damaged.”

John Stapleton, an expert on social assistance who worked for Ontario’s public service and headed several research reports on income security, says the auditor general misapplies a value for money prism to poverty reduction:

“Her social assistance audits are the most powerful examples of her over-reach … She tipped her hand that she does not particular­ly like welfare recipients. Her findings on (the Ontario Disability Support Program) are also clearly not supported by relevant available evidence.”

Rob Prichard, a former chair of Metrolinx who serves on various corporate and nonprofit boards, said Lysyk embarrasse­d the auditor’s office but also hurt the reputation of Metrolinx by falsely accusing the transporta­tion agency of installing a bridge truss upside down (a physical impossibil­ity):

“Many thanks for calling out Bonnie Lysyk and in particular the fictitious upside-down bridge … She made patently false claims, … was unable to admit her mistakes … and appeared at times to be more interested in headlines than improving public administra­tion … The office of Auditor General is an important one … but it demands care, judgment and restraint.”

Taken together, these comments were offered in sorrow not in anger. The speakers don’t bear personal grudges, but bespeak a public lament — and puzzlement over her peculiar methodolog­y.

When I reached out to Lysyk by phone Wednesday, she offered this emailed response to the public criticisms:

“Our work holds the organizati­ons we audit accountabl­e for their operations, helping to ensure that Ontarians receive the most benefit possible from Ontario’s public programs and services. I am proud of the hard work put forward by our team.” But conducting audits requires you to keep an open mind and to change your mind. That trait is hard to detect in Lysyk, whose 10-year appointmen­t as an independen­t officer of the legislatur­e makes her not only untouchabl­e, but sometimes unpersuada­ble, allegedly prone to “personal attacks” and given to censoring opposing views (auditor’s reports normally leave space for official responses, but Lysyk sometimes deems them irrelevant and removes them).

The most frequent complaint from public servants and experts is that Lysyk not only rejects their explanatio­ns and expertise, but imposes her own subjective values on value for money audits. The auditor not only questions the efficacy of anti-poverty programs and efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but challenges the premises and objectives.

Asked at his Wednesday news conference about Lysyk’s term and tenure, Premier Doug Ford suggested 10 years is “too long” for an auditor general: “You need to have fresh blood in there and move things along,” he told reporters. “I’m not going to interfere with the auditor general’s office, but I can tell you this — everyone has to be held accountabl­e.”

Lysyk’s annual report comes out on Monday and, as in years past, there will likely be much of value in her value for money audits. But too often, she crosses the line from auditing to politickin­g, as when she commission­ed a public-opinion poll to second-guess the last Liberal government’s policies on carbon pricing (she wanted fuller disclosure, much like the current PC government’s controvers­ial — and unconstitu­tional — moves against the federal carbon levy).

Auditors perform a vital function. They shine a light on waste and wrongdoing in their own way.

But a public trust requires a trusted public servant.

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 ?? AARON VINCENT ELKAIM THE CANADIAN PRESS FILE PHOTO ?? Ontario auditor general Bonnie Lysyk too often crosses the line from auditing to politickin­g, Martin Regg Cohn writes.
AARON VINCENT ELKAIM THE CANADIAN PRESS FILE PHOTO Ontario auditor general Bonnie Lysyk too often crosses the line from auditing to politickin­g, Martin Regg Cohn writes.

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