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Federal disaster plan comes up short: auditor general

OTTAWA - Public Safety Canada, the agency charged with co-ordinating the federal response to threats such as the H1N1 flu, has yet to complete its emergency plan, the auditor general says.

OTTAWA - Public Safety Canada, the agency charged with co-ordinating the federal response to threats such as the H1N1 flu, has yet to complete its emergency plan, the auditor general says.

Two years after Parliament gave the department responsibility for emergency management leadership, the formal plan has yet to be finished and approved.

There is growing political and public anger over H1N1, as thousands flock to overwhelmed clinics for flu shots - but there's no overall federal plan for emergencies, be they pandemics, floods, blackouts or terror attacks.

In the latest of her periodic reports to Parliament, Auditor General Sheila Fraser said Tuesday that Public Safety is supposed to ensure that federal departments work together in emergencies.

"The aim is to eliminate the potential for confusion when responding in a crisis and provide a federal point for co-ordination," says the report.

Instead, the department is still drafting the policies and rules that would define what it's supposed to do and how it's supposed to do it.

"Until it is clearly established how Public Safety Canada will work with other departments, it will be difficult for it to truly co-ordinate the federal response to emergency situations."

Fraser said it's clear the federal government can respond to crises.

"Are they responding in a co-ordinated way, as effectively and efficiently as they should be?"

Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan said things work well in practice.

"Canada has always coped well with emergencies and disasters."

Van Loan said substantial progress has been made in producing the formal emergency plan.

"Our plans continue to be prepared," he said. "We've worked well with the provinces and the territories, our co-ordination has worked well, as we saw this spring with the floods in Manitoba and we will continue to improve and enhance and build our emergency management capacity."

Fraser complained that the cabinet has yet to sign off even on the draft plans that exist.

Van Loan said cabinet will approve it.

"We are going to do that. We think that's a good suggestion so that it does have that form. We will also continue to work to evolve it."

Fraser said the department did play a part in developing responses to avian flu and H1N1, but hasn't nailed down its role as the central, co-ordinating body for emergencies in general.

It has also fallen short on the issues of cybersecurity and protecting critical infrastructure - railways, pipelines, power plants and the like.

"We found that Public Safety Canada has not exercised the leadership necessary to co-ordinate emergency management activities, including protection of critical infrastructure."

There is also a gap on the emergency front line. Public Safety is working on standards for things such as protective gear for police and firefighters and for equipment, such as heavy search-and-rescue vehicles.

But there are still serious communications problems. Police, fire and ambulance services often can't communicate with each other or across jurisdictions. The department said it is trying to help these agencies develop their own standards.

Public Safety budgeted $17.1 million over the last three years for emergency exercises, but spent only half the money. Exercises that were held tended to be training times for individual departments, not tests of overall co-ordination.

The audit recognized that trying to pull various departments together is a challenge, but that's why Public Safety was set up in the first place.

By and large, the department agreed with Fraser's criticisms and has promised improvements.

Fraser's report also urged the government to get the Income Tax Act up to date with a series of technical changes, both to close loopholes and to make it easier for taxpayers to understand the rules.

She cited the example of non-compete agreements, by which part of the selling price of a company is linked to the seller's agreement not to compete with the new owner. Disgraced newspaper mogul Conrad Black collected large sums in non-compete agreements before he ran afoul of U.S. authorities and was sent to prison.

These payments were supposed to be taxable, but court decisions in 2000 and 2003 said they were generally not subject to tax. The Finance Department said in 2003 it would change the law to make it clear that taxes were due on such payments.

However, that change - along with 150 or so other technical changes to the tax law - has never been passed.

After a certain time - three or four years usually - tax returns cannot be reassessed. If the time expires before the laws are changed, the government can't go back and get its money.

Fraser said the Finance Department has about 400 tax changes it wants to make, but hasn't managed to get a technical bill through Parliament since 2001.

Other issues cited in the report:

-Health Canada is unable to force the recall of lead-laden children's jewelry.

-Officials have not properly identified the skilled jobs Canada needs when selecting immigrants.

-The federal eHealth initiative gets a generally positive prognosis, though some contracting problems remain.

Generally, Fraser found the government often fails to look before it leaps when it comes to new programs and policies.

Changes are pushed through without a thorough analysis of the risks, the resource needs, the impact in other areas or the steps needed to get the expected results.

"Having a complete picture of what needs to be done, by whom, how other programs will be affected and what risks are involved can make the difference between a program that delivers results for Canadians and one that does not," Fraser said.

For example, she said, program evaluations are a great help in decision-making, but many departments evaluate only a small proportion of their spending.

Part of the problem is that experienced evaluators are hard to find. Departments often contract the work out, which means they don't build their own expertise in judging spending programs.

She said government is far better at announcing programs than in following them up and ensuring results. It's likely worse in a time of minority governments.

"It is probably more difficult in a minority situation to get these things done," she said. "I'm not sure that should be an excuse."

 
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