March 2, 2004) OTTAWA
- The former secretary of the Treasury Board, which oversees government spending, told a Commons inquiry today that he was never involved in any discussions about problems with the federal sponsorship program in his time there.
"There was no specific discussions about the sponsorship
program or problems with the sponsorship program while I was at
Treasury Board," said Peter Harder, who was the equivalent of the deputy minister for Treasury Board from December 1995 to March of
He told the public accounts committee that news about
the lack of controls with the sponsorship program did not reach the board until an internal audit was launched
by Public Works in March of 2000, at about the time he
Conservative MP Jason Kenny asked Harder when did he first hear rumours about mismanagement in the sponsorship program and why wasn't action taken.
Harder said that it was until the internal audit in 2000 was launched that he was aware of
But Kenny pressed and noted that there were questions about contracts to Groupaction in the House of Commons dating back to 1996, to which Harder replied, "It was the responsibility of the (public works) department to respond to questions in the House of Commons."
When asked how the problems outlined in the Auditor General's report on the sponsorship program could get past the Treasury Board for four years, Harder told the committee, "It was not the role of the board to go into a department and manage (programs) for them."
Harder also would not speculate about what he thought happened in the sponsorship program, saying speculation "would be inappropriate for a deputy minister." And when asked why the sponsorship branch had a special status that appeared to bypass the normal controls of other branches, he said could not answer that question either and was not aware of its special status at the time.
Yesterday, the former deputy minister at public works, where the sponsorship branch was located, told the committee that the program was set up in 1997 to allow then public works minister Alfonso Gagliano to deal directly with bureaucrats in the branch.
The Treasury Board submissions for funding of the program were signed by both Gagliano and former prime minister Jean Chretien.
The committee tried to gain from Harder whether it was unusual for a prime minister to be signing off on such submissions.
"It was rare, but not unprecedented for the prime minister to sign Treasury Board submissions," Harder said. "It did not raise my attention."
But he added that it was the only time he was aware of during his time at Treasury Board where both the PM and a minister signed a submission. He said Chretien's signature on the submission reflected access to funds within the fiscal framework that he had discretion over.
Conservative Party MPs also tried to get from Harder any insight into Prime Minister Paul Martin's knowledge of problems with the financial management of government departments.
In a weekend interview with the Winnipeg Sun, Treasury Board President Reg Alcock said that Martin knew for years that the government's financial management system was rife with problems and could be abused, but was unable to do anything about it in his role as finance minister.
"All Paul Martin could do is run his department within the context that he's given," Alcock told the Sun.
Conservative MP Vic Toews asked Harder if Martin, who was also the vice-chair of Treasury Board while at finance, had ever brought those issues to his attention.
"I don't recall a specific quote," Harder replied, but added that generally all ministers at the time had expressed concern.
Conservative MP Gary Lunn said that based on the testimony so far the only plausible explanation he has for what happened was: "This is the PM's baby, this is what he wants done. Hands off."
But Harder denied the suggestion that political pressure was being applied to him to look the other way with regards to the sponsorship
program or any other program.
"In the time I was secretary of the Treasury Board I did not feel constrained in doing my job," he said, adding that "no unwritten rule was pronounced to me."
After the committee meeting, MPs expressed frustration with the testimony of the deputy ministers over the past two days.
"We need to get to some of the other witnesses," said NDP MP Joe Comartin. "We're not going to get (anything) from people like
Comartin said he thinks people like Harder, who is still a public servant, feel intimidated by the federal government.
"The protestations that we have now that they'll be protected, I don't think the public service believes it," he said. "So they are very, very careful about what they are prepared to say that ties it in anyway to the political realm."
He listed Olympic gold medalist Myriam Bedard, who says she was forced out of Via Rail due to her questions about billing by Groupaction, and public servant Allan Cutler, who warned senior officials about the awarding of non-competitive
contracts to Liberal-friendly advertising firms in Quebec for work that was not done, as two witnesses he was interested in hearing from.
Conservative MP Paul Forseth said he is "frustrated" by the testimony to date.
"I think it's reasonable to conclude to anybody who's watching the proceedings they know a lot more than what they're telling us."
However, he said he doesn't think fear is the major factor motivating the government officials.
"Part of it is just professional camaraderie. You're part of the system. At the upper echelon there's a fashion of the way you do things. Unless you're absolutely forced to you don't reveal or tell the tales on somebody else.
"It's all what I call a very incestuous inside bureaucratize and it doesn't serve the public interest at all."
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