Nunavut MLAs should do it for themselves


Since last May, when the Government of Nunavut first confirmed longstanding rumours about big, embarrassing cost overruns at the Nunavut Housing Corp., Nunavut MLAs have enjoyed a fun time.

Most of this fun has involved the portrayal of themselves as heroes and the portrayal of government officials as villains.

So from the beginning, it’s been all play and no work. Nunavut MLAs have never ceased in their demands that the territorial government pay somebody else to do work that MLAs should do for themselves.

To that end, some have demanded a “forensic audit.” Others have demanded a “public inquiry.” One MLA demanded “a forensic audit and a public inquiry.”

As recently as Oct. 25, MLAs were still demanding that the government pay someone else to do things that MLAs already have the power to do for themselves.

Consider the idea of “a public inquiry.” A public inquiry is an expensive quasi-judicial process led by a judge or a retired judge. Public inquiries have the power to subpeona documents and compel witnesses to give sworn evidence. Because of this, public inquiries often produce big paydays for lawyers, since those who become targets of public inquiries usually demand legal representation to protect their rights.

A public inquiry is a justifiable tool for investigating a gross injustice, a series of wrongful deaths in a public institution, an egregious abuse of power, or any other serious problem that normal tools of government have failed to deal with.

The housing corporation’s construction fiasco, serious though it may be, does not meet this standard.

And despite much lurid speculation, no one has provided any concrete evidence pointing to the kind of criminality or widespread corruption that could justify a public inquiry.

The root cause of the housing corporation’s spending fiasco, as is evident from the Deloitte and Touche review released by the government earlier this year, is financial and managerial incompetence.

This is not news. Since 2002 Auditor General of Canada, in numerous reports, has warned the Government of Nunavut that its financial management incompetence puts the government at serious risk. Throughout all those years, the territorial government did little to respond to those warnings and most regular MLAs did little to press the government on the issue.

Incompetence within government is a serious matter. But it’s not a criminal matter. And since the GN’s financial management incompetence is already well-known, well-documented and well-entrenched, there is little justification for holding a public inquiry to produce information that we already know.

Besides, a full-blown public inquiry would consume too much time and money. Holding a public inquiry would involve hiring a judge from southern Canada, then paying for his or her staff and office expenses.

After that, the Nunavut government would be required to pay for lengthy public hearings and the numerous legal bills those public hearings would generate for most participants and witnesses, not to mention travel, accommodation and translation expenses.

Given how slowly things move in Nunavut, it’s unlikely that such a public inquiry could finish its work before the next territorial election in 2012.

And even if the GN were to make the mistake of ordering a public inquiry into the housing corporation, the GN would still control the agenda. In a public inquiry, cabinet, not the legislative assembly, would set the inquiry’s mandate and terms of reference. And no government can be compelled to act on any public inquiry’s recommendations.

The demand for a forensic audit is equally weak. The word “forensic” means “criminal.” Forensic audits are usually ordered for the specific purpose of uncovering illegal activities such as fraud, bribery or theft, and they are usually done by law enforcement agencies.

So to justify a forensic audit, MLAs would have to provide at least some evidence showing that criminal activity played a role in the housing corporation fiasco. They haven’t done so.

And unless a forensic audit were to lead to the laying of criminal charges, it’s unlikely that the result of such an investigation could serve the public interest anyway. In any report flowing from a forensic audit, much information would have to be withheld to protect privacy and other rights.

MLAs do, however, possess tools that could allow them to do the work for themselves, work that we already pay them to do.

They could, for example, refer the matter to one of their standing committees, such as the standing committee on government operations, and then schedule a special meeting. Such committees hold the power to request witnesses and to hear evidence. MLAs could also refer the matter to committee of the whole, or create a special committee for the specific purpose of looking into the housing corporation.

If the MLAs do it for themselves, they, not cabinet, would get to control the process. But that’s only if they can muster enough brainpower to get the job done. To that end, they should make use of the legislative assembly’s law clerk and the assembly’s research staff to help them figure out how to ask questions and analyze information.

The public already pays the cost of operating a legislative assembly in Nunavut. It’s about time MLAs provided the public with some service in exchange for these expenditures. JB

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