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Investigate the gun registry

By John Williamson
web posted May 29, 2006

When former Prime Minister Paul Martin asked Justice John Gomery to head the investigation into the Quebec Sponsorship program, it was in response to Auditor-General Sheila Fraser uncovering widespread rule-breaking and possible corruption. The auditor could only go so far whereas Judge Gomery had powers to probe deeper and draw conclusions. He revealed illegal activities within the administration of the program involving the misuse and misdirection of public funds. Should the auditor-general's findings surrounding the federal gun registry trigger a similar inquiry?

In 1995, the government estimated the long-gun registry would cost $119-million to implement, but recoup $117-million through firearms license fees for a net cost to taxpayers of $2-million. Despite this assurance, the dream of a low-cost registry quickly became a nightmare for taxpayers.

In December 2002, the auditor-general pegged the cost of the gun registry at $688-million. In a damning indictment of Ottawa's management abilities, Ms. Fraser reported her office was incapable of determining the full cost of implementing the program, reporting that "the financial information was unreliable and did not fairly present the net costs of the program." Without conducting a forensic audit Canadian taxpayers may never know the true cost of this boondoggle, which today stands at over $1-billion.

There is more. In a second report tabled earlier this month, Ms. Fraser reported additional firearms registry cost overruns. Software development is "significantly over budget" and government officials continue to flout the law. Most alarming is the conclusion that $40-million in spending was not authorized or reported to Parliament.

Hiding these costs broke at least one federal law, the Financial Administration Act. It also violated Ottawa's accounting policies, which are in place to ensure rules are followed. And it meant Parliament's constitutional power to decide how tax dollars are spent was usurped by bureaucratic fiat. What is not known is if political masters directed the scheme. This question must be addressed.

The Conservative government's response was to promise legislation to repeal the requirement to register non-restricted firearms. The program's annual $83-million budget was also cut by $10-million. This is all well and good, but does not go far enough.

Shadows of the Sponsorship program hang over the gun registry. Some might scoff at this declaration or the need to find answers. But until it is explained how a program budgeted to cost $117-million somehow exceeded $1-billion, the burden of proof rests on the shoulders of officials responsible for ensuring the proper stewardship of tax dollars. Taxpayers are seeking answers on the awarding of contracts to consultants.

Paragraph 4.82 of the auditor's most recent report concludes "the [Canada Firearms] Centre misused contracting tools to retain the services of information technology contractors." And paragraph 4.83 reveals the government system used to award contracts was rigged and "made directed contracts appear to have been awarded competitively." In addition "the end result [of contracting tools] was a non-competitive process and did not meet the objectives of the Treasury Board Contracting Policy."

The audit also found "on average the cost to the Centre for each consultant increased by about 25 per cent under this supply arrangement." Costs skyrocketed as excessive - and needless - commissions were paid to well-connected consultants. This has both the look and feel of another Sponsorship-style kickback scheme.

The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee has decided to investigate who is responsible for hiding from Parliament the rising costs of the registry. Yet the committee chair has already conceded it will not be possible to remove "politics" from the examination. A wider investigation is necessary. Given what Ms. Fraser has told Canadians about the operations of the federal firearms registry, there is ample reason for Prime Minister Stephen Harper to establish an independent inquiry into this program. He should do so without delay.

John Williamson is the federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.


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