Auditor General Report highlights breakdown in programs and services

The Auditor General released a report this week that focussed on implementing Canada’s Economic Action Plan; issuing visas for entry into Canada; making income support payments to agricultural producers; regulating pharmaceutical drugs; and maintaining and repairing military equipment.  The report was critical of many things including how infrastructure was designed in a way to make it next to impossible to determine if any jobs were actually created.  But two items struck me as wasteful in one case and worrisome in the next.

The first is the $284 million Tobacco Transition Program, which was supposed to help tobacco farmers transition their land to different crops, but somehow turned into a subsidy for those who exploited loopholes without changing crops.   The second item of concern is the long delays at Health Canada for evaluating potential problems with the safety of prescription drugs.  Both are cases where policies have been implemented, but the desired effect is not being achieved.

For tobacco transition, the goal is obvious.  With less Canadians smoking and adverse health effects so clearly understood, we need less tobacco.  The crop is grown on prime farm land and it only makes sense to use this to our benefit by growing more desirable crops.   What happened was an abuse of loopholes.   Participating farmers undermined the program by renting their land and equipment to family members, while still working on the farm.   The Auditor Generals’ report indicates that not only did our tobacco farmers make use of this loophole, but Canada doubled the amount of tobacco grown as compared to two years earlier, when the program had not been introduced.  In the end, we replaced private subsidies for tobacco production with public money.  That is truly wasteful.

The implications for prescription drug evaluations are very worrisome.  Determining problems for a particular drug that has been approved and the subsequent warnings to the public should not be taking two years.  Health Canada was given standards designed to speed up this reporting in 1996, but they are not being evenly applied.   The problem is not helped by the agency’s failure to use undesirable effects reports from other countries.  The Auditor General also showed the problem is worse for generic drugs, which means budget-conscious Canadians are facing greater risks than those who purchase brand-name drugs.  It also means the brand name companies are receiving more timely attention from Health Canada.

In these cases and countless others we have been well served by the office of the Auditor General.   The office increases transparency and accountability which the Conservatives won an election on in 2008.  It is difficult to see how things could have changed so much in a little over three years to the point where the budget for the office will be cut back – but that is the case.  It seems to me that oversight is the last thing we should cut if our goal is getting value for the money we spend.