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Fraser dumps environment commissioner

MPs to demand answers for surprise move during special committee meeting today

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

OTTAWA — Auditor-General Sheila Fraser, who exposed the gun registry fiasco and blew open the sponsorship scandal, is now under scrutiny herself.

Members of Parliament are demanding to know why she replaced Environment Commissioner Johanne Gélinas in a surprise move yesterday.

Ms. Fraser has been called to a special meeting of the House of Commons environment committee this afternoon, where MPs say they will express concern about the continuing independence of the Environment Commissioner's office.

Ms. Gélinas issued a statement late last night expressing surprise that she was being removed from the position.

She and Ms. Fraser have had a "difference of opinion" over the past year about the orientation of the commissioner's office, she stated.

"I was considering a future departure, but Ms. Fraser's announcement was premature and came as a complete surprise," she said.

In a private meeting with MPs yesterday, sources say Ms. Fraser suggested there were concerns that the commissioner had become more of an advocate than an auditor. The commission was created as a division of the Auditor-General's Office in 1995 and Ms. Gélinas has held the post since 2000.

The commissioner's work usually receives far less attention than Ms. Fraser's audits, but in September her report landed amid heightened public and political interest in climate change.

The Conservatives were planning to release their "made in Canada" environment plan last fall to coincide with what was expected to be a highly critical report from Ms. Gélinas on the Liberal environment record. But the Conservatives changed their plans when it became clear that Ms. Gélinas's report would not only criticize the Liberals for not doing enough, but challenge the new government to move more aggressively and build on the existing climate-change programs.

Ms. Gélinas expressed frustration at the time that she could not obtain details from the Conservative government about its plan for climate change and vowed to comment again once the plan was released. The government's Clean Air Act was released in October, but Ms. Gélinas's promised critique has not materialized.

Ms. Fraser issued a press release yesterday afternoon announcing that her assistant auditor, Ron Thompson, would replace Ms. Gélinas on an interim basis. No reason was given in the release, but Ms. Fraser provided more detail in a closed-door briefing to MPs on the environment committee earlier in the day.

Conservatives expressed surprise at the announcement yesterday and noted that as an officer of Parliament, Ms. Fraser has full authority and independence to make such decisions.

Environment Minister John Baird said in a statement that Ms. Gélinas's climate-change report laid bare the Liberal government's "shameful record on the environment" and that "Canadians were well served by this important wake-up call."

A copy of Ms. Fraser's prepared speech for the closed-door meeting, marked confidential and obtained by The Globe and Mail, reveals further details.

Ms. Fraser's speaking notes state that Ms. Gélinas will be leaving to "pursue other opportunities." The Auditor-General then goes on to call for a review of the Environment Commissioner's role.

"For example, the extent to which the Commissioner can or should be involved in an advocacy role where government policy is concerned," the notes state.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May said she received a terse phone call late last year from Ms. Fraser after Ms. May had said there were attempts to "muzzle" the Environment Commissioner. Ms. May said the conversation made clear that the Auditor- General thought Ms. Gélinas's September, 2006, report on climate change went too far in terms of telling the government what future policy actions should be taken.

"Ever since [Ms. Gélinas] filed her report on climate change, there have been attempts to shut down the office and to curtail her role. Her departure is very, very unfortunate," said Ms. May, who once served on an advisory panel for the commission.

"It would be very politically easy to say it's the Harper government trying to shut down people who are concerned about Kyoto, but I think it's far simpler than that," she said. "I think it's that we have a very, very fine civil servant in our Auditor-General who is not used to having anyone in her office who speaks independently."

Reached as she emerged from the closed-door meeting with MPs, Ms. Fraser attempted to play down the then-unpublicized announcement and said she would be available to the media once it became public.

Ms. Fraser's office later said there would be no interviews because she will be appearing today before the committee.

Opposition leaders all expressed concern about Ms. Gélinas's departure and praised her record as commissioner.

"She has been a tremendous commissioner," Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion said.

NDP Leader Jack Layton said, "I think Canadians are going to be deeply concerned about what has happened here, and certainly, we will be looking for answers."

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