WT: I have with me here, Jim MacKenzie. You work for the Environmental Commissioner, and you were doing an audit, can you tell me, what was the purpose of your audit, what was your part of this audit? Can you explain how this came to be and a little bit of the methodology around it?
Mackenzie: Thanks! I am a principal with the Office of the Auditor General, and the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development is a position within our office. I have worked with the Commissioner for many years on a variety of topics. In this audit, in particular, we set out to see how well federal departments work together. We looked at how well Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) and Agriculture and Agri-food Canada were working together or collaborating on scientific activities. Our focus was on the issue of excess nutrients. We looked at not only how they were collaborating on the scientific activities - whether monitoring or research - but also how they were sharing the results of their work with the other organizations involved in managing water resources. Obviously, water is a very broad issue, a very important issue. When we started out doing planning, the issue of collaboration was raised by a number of different individuals that we spoke to, whether within the government or outside of the government. Both departments, the Ministers in fact, have been mandated by the Prime Minister to collaborate, so we used that as our starting point.
WT: You are specifically looking at three watersheds: St. John, Lake Erie, and Lake Winnipeg is that correct?
MacKenzie: That is correct.
WT: For my viewers concerned about blue-green algae, this is for you. All of us have done field studies, I would say, most of our viewers have been involved with their lakes, rivers, and communities around blue-green. We see the runoff coming in with fertilizer, my audience wonders why (ECCC and Ag Canada) can’t talk to each other and just decrease this, or fix that, people don’t understand what’s so hard about it. Can you speak to how they get along, how they communicate?
MacKenzie: We looked at the whole issue of collaboration from a number of different angles. On the one hand, we looked at whether (ECCC and Ag Canada) were sharing information on risks related to the issue of water and excess nutrients. And our starting point there was recognizing that both departments have shared interests but different mandates. ECCC's mandate is very much directed towards ensuring clean lakes and rivers and environmental protection, biodiversity whereas Agriculture and Agri-food Canada’s mandate is really focused more on supporting farming operations and the agricultural sector.
So, as part of our methodology we looked at the documentation with department officials, how are they sharing information on risks. We found that there was information-sharing taking place through conferences, through committees where both departments are involved, and even at the individual project levels, where we saw that both departments were working on a similar project.
The one thing we found was that they didn’t have a formal process that would ensure that information was being shared consistently and formally. We saw, as with other issues we identified, there was coordination/collaboration taking place, but in our view, they needed to raise it to another level to ensure they had a consistent and broader perspective of the risks, from both departments, a complete picture. Our view is to help ensure they have that complete picture, also understanding where some of the gaps are. Hopefully, this will be able to drive the science, monitoring, and research they are undertaking. We made a recommendation in that regard, and departments have agreed to it. They responded, agreeing to some of the mechanisms that will help share, ensuring information is being shared on regular basis.
WT: What I hear from viewers, is that the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing when it comes to the federal government. Is that as simple as it is, or are more complicated things in motion? You don’t have to be an auditor to know that Lake Erie is getting worse, can you lay out where the problems are (between ECCC and Ag Canada)? You talk about three problem areas; can you tell us about them?
MacKenzie: Coming back to that question of collaboration, when we looked at what was taking place between the two departments, and we looked at collaboration at the project level, we saw that there were examples where both departments were involved in a project. We did see that there were mechanisms in place, but there were a couple of gaps we noted in the report. One of them was at the regional level, they have established mechanisms, for example, there are inter-jurisdictional committees where both departments are working in Lake Winnipeg and Lake Erie, but we didn’t see this in the Wolastoq / St John River Basin; in that area, no formal mechanism had been put in place. We did see some more recent activity, ECCC had initiated an informal meeting to maybe act as a catalyst toward sharing information but surely compared to the other basins it was informal. So, we saw a gap in terms of having formal mechanisms in place, not just for the two departments to collaborate but to be able to bring in others who are interested and involved in water quality management issues. We saw that the departments had started, had created scientific committees with the intention of trying to coordinate between the departments, they started out in 2018, but we saw they only met once.
WT: They only met once?
MacKenzie: Yes. That was another recommendation that we had in our report, was that they need to reestablish these committees. We saw value in terms of being able to bring together the scientific knowledge of the departments in that type of forum, and that would certainly help facilitate some of that collaboration. One of the things we see, it’s ok to see the two departments working on their own, but if you can bring them together to share the synergies, the benefits of them working together should outweigh working separately. One other item I would point out is that there is no oversight at a national level. We looked across the country really because we looked at three areas. There is no national-level committee that could provide oversight and ensure that type of coordination was taking place. In all three areas, whether it be at the national level, those regional committees I mentioned, Wolastoq /St. John, we had made recommendations they take action, and put in place mechanisms to address those issues. They responded positively and agreed to adopt those recommendations, so again, pointing out how these departments can bring it to that next level, so to speak, in terms of coordinating and collaborating on their scientific activities.
WT: I find it incredible that the Auditor General would have to point out to Ag Canada and Environment Canada, using the words in your own report “demonstrates the department’s leadership role in water quality monitoring…”, “develop tools and methodology to assess sensitivity of aquatic resources…”, “ensure the department is monitoring the appropriate parameters at monitoring sites”. While I don’t think you can cross the line into a personal opinion here, I think it would be fair to say, I am incredulous it would take an auditor to point this out, isn’t that what the departments are for? Having said that, and read this in your report, you have no enforcement ability, will the Auditor General check back every so often to see if they are actually fixing this?
MacKenzie: The role of our office is certainly part of the relationship between us, departments, and the broader role that Parliament plays. We will go in, look at an issue, and our reports go to Parliament. We are different than an internal audit function where the work is done within the department, and it gets reported to the deputy minister. Ours is independent in that sense, it’s an external audit, and so we will make recommendations. As you say, we don’t have enforcement ability. We can’t force departments to implement recommendations. We have introduced a new tool this year called “Update on Past Audits”, which is a tool for us to go back and look at key issues, indicators that we may have raised in past reports, or recommendations for that matter. This is a tool we are now using to track the implementation of recommendations.
That then speaks to the role of Parliament.
Our reports go either to the Public Accounts Committee if it's through the Auditor General, or to the Environment and Sustainable Development Committee of the House of Commons, certainly, the Public accounts Committee has expectations the departments provide them with detailed action plans, and we will bring departments to them as an accountability mechanism to ask them for progress. The Environment and Sustainable Development Committee doesn’t play the same function, but it certainly has that role, will call a hearing, they will bring departments to talk about the reports, and to talk about the progress they are making. It is the role of our office; you raise good points about the role of the audit function. Some of the departments have so many different issues, we provide assurance to Parliament that issues are being addressed, or if they are not, we see where there are gaps, where improvements can be made, hence our recommendations.
WT: We did some research in house here, this year there was something like 197, 196 lakes that were in peril because of blue-green algae over the course of the year, so there are good numbers to say something here to the federal government, “Come on, coordinate, help out!”
Do you have influence, does the AG have any counterparts in the provinces that read these reports, or do this similar work on a provincial level? This comes down to even if the Environment and Agriculture get together, they still have to work with their provincial counterparts. Even if they do work together sublimely, to the best of their abilities, they still must work with the provincial Environment Minister and Provincial Ag Minister, is there some mechanism for your national auditor to get this to a provincial auditor? I have no doubt they are trying their very best to do this right, but what happens with the provinces?
MacKenzie: That’s a great point. In fact, our office does work with the provincial Auditor Generals. There is a council in Canada that brings together the various AGs, and we do look for opportunities to do collaborative work. It’s interesting your perspective on water, you raise a good point, the feds can only do so much. We only looked at two departments, Environment and Agriculture at the federal level, we looked at communications, we pointed out they can do better on that front, to get that information out to decision-makers at other levels of government and in civil society, and other Canadian groups such as Indigenous groups.
We have had discussions, it’s always something we are looking out for, opportunities to do the collaborative work. Now that this audit is done, we have an opportunity, on the recommendations, one thing I would point out about the provincial responses is that they did commit to putting in place some concrete measures and timelines. We don’t always see that, responses to recommendations may be less committal. Here we have the opportunity to go back, maybe even next year, and in the interim, pursue or discuss the possibility of doing further joint work with the provinces.
We released an audit in 2018 on climate change. That was the first time our office, the Auditor General and Environment Commissioner has done joint work with the provinces. The one we released in 2018 was the first time that we have been able to bring all the provinces together, to look at an issue more or less from the same perspective. Climate change is one again, it's not just the feds, it requires the attention of all levels of government. Water is another issue like that, surely something that would be on our screen going forward, to look at opportunities to collaborate. It may not be with all provinces, but certainly, for some, it may provide us an opportunity to provide that picture of what the federal government is doing and look at what the provinces are doing at the same time.
WT: Jim MacKenzie, I want to thank you for doing this. Keep doing your audits of federal departments and telling Canadian citizens what is and isn’t going on. I appreciate what you do.
MacKenzie: I appreciate the opportunity to speak with you. I think the more our work gets out, the more people are aware of it, the better. We have the petitions process which people can use, information is on our website, individual Canadians or organizations can submit questions for a response from departments, a process managed by our office. I am encouraged by the responses to our recommendations, implementing certain actions, the importance of collaboration, bringing it to a higher level. With the reality of climate change and the risks it poses, combined with the fact that the federal government has a commitment to environmental goals while increasing agricultural exports, how do we balance those objectives and ensure departments are working as closely as they can, in the context of climate change.