An Auditor's Best Friend? Standing Committees on Public Accounts

Article excerpt

This article examines public accounts committees (PACs) in Canadian legislatures and their relationship with legislative auditors. It looks at PACs in their context as instruments of the legislature and how this political and legislative context affects their relationship with legislative auditors. As such, I am less concerned with legislative auditors themselves than with the important but varying relationship between auditors and legislative assemblies. Even so, the role of PACs can be crucial to the effective functioning of legislative auditors. This study argues that the best committees are able to complement and enhance the role of legislative auditors, primarily by providing an important public forum for the further exploration of issues identified by auditors. In this sense, PACs are an auditor's best friend. Now, not all PACs are equally strong, and there are serious discrepancies in the resources available to them, quite apart from any differences in the operations and mandates of their corresponding auditors. But resources do not tell the whole story either. The chief achievement of public accounts committees is their role as a public forum, rather than their reports and recommendations. As such, it is ultimately the attitudes of members, auditors and governments that determine the role and effectiveness of public accounts committees.

The article proceeds as follows. We begin with an introduction to public accounts committees and their similarities and differences across Canada. We then move to their components and activities, as well as their relationship to legislative auditors. The article then considers the effectiveness of committees and possible difficulties, including partisanship and the issue of public servants' appearances as witnesses, and illustrates these points through a brief case study of the 2002-03 federal Groupaction investigation. The article concludes with a discussion of overall PAC effectiveness and how it might be enhanced across Canada. (1)

An introduction to PACs

Very little research has been conducted on Canadian public accounts committees. This is somewhat surprising, since the function of PACs--accountability--is perhaps the most basic function of Westminster-style parliaments. More than any other type of legislative committee, PACs exist solely for the purpose of holding governments to account. They do not consider bills. They do not conduct policy inquiries. Very rarely do they travel or hear from the general public. Instead, they focus on scrutinizing past government activities and investigating whether governments have made good use of resources and properly accounted for their actions.

A standing committee on public accounts can be found in the House of Commons and in every provincial legislative assembly in Canada except Quebec, which has a standing committee on public administration. Yukon has a standing committee on public accounts, while the Northwest Territories has a standing committee on accountability and oversight and Nunavut has a select standing committee on government operations and services, both of which perform functions similar to provincial PACs.

Like other legislative standing committees, public accounts committees are composed solely of legislators, distributed proportionately to their parties' standings in the assembly. In some ways, PACs have more in common with other committees in their own legislature than with each other, particularly in terms of size, resources and levels of activity. But public accounts committees have several unique properties in common that set them apart from other legislative committees.

Similarities

First and most noticeably, PACs are chaired by a member of the official opposition party. In the House of Commons and all provinces except Quebec, all other standing committees are normally chaired by members of the governing party. (Quebec has both government and opposition committee chairs, while recent Commons reforms have increased the possibility of opposition chairs, if desired by the committee). …