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Globe editorial

Replacing Ms. Gélinas

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

When Johanne Gélinas released her climate-change report last September as Canada's commissioner of the environment and sustainable development, she held everyone's feet to the fire.

She called the response to her earlier findings "disappointing. . . . On the basis of this year's work, I am more troubled than ever by the federal government's long-standing failure to confront one of the greatest challenges of our time. Our future is at stake."

Passionate, yes. But there were few complaints that she had overstepped her bounds. John Baird, then Treasury Board president and now environment minister, was thrilled at the darts she directed at the previous Liberal government's record. "This report," he said, "points to an expensive, mismanaged and unaccountable scheme whose only chance of achieving Canada's Kyoto commitment rested on spending billions of Canadians' taxpayer dollars on international emissions credits."

But it was clear from Ms. Gélinas's comments that she would be similarly scathing about the shortcomings of the Conservatives or any other party in power.

Yesterday, Auditor-General Sheila Fraser, who appoints the environment commissioner, announced that Ms. Gélinas had been replaced.

It is difficult with internal matters to know just what leads to such partings -- real or perceived insubordination, a personality clash, a disagreement over the best approach.

But if, as some sources say, the knock againstMs. Gélinas is that she was too much the advocate, in what way did she exceed her role? That role, as the Auditor-General's website says, is to give parliamentarians "objective, independent analysis and recommendations on the federal government's efforts to protect the environment and foster sustainable development.

Encouraging the government to be more accountable for greening its policies, operations and programs is a key to the commissioner's mandate."

Certainly, when an auditor's job is to judge a government's performance and report to a body, Parliament, which is stocked with that government's opponents, the auditor has to be non-partisan. Ms. Gélinas acknowledged as much last September.

But drawing the line between audit and involvement in such political circumstances is not simple, as Ms. Fraser surely knows. Ever since the auditor-general's department turned to value-for-money audits under James Macdonell in 1977, it has found itself making value judgments. And there has been no lack of passion; it would be hard to top Ms. Fraser's memorable phrase, in her 2002 interim report on the Liberal sponsorship scandal, that "senior public servants broke just about every rule in the book."

With her report on climate change last fall, Ms. Gélinas gave MPs and the general public the tools to analyze the Liberals' and the Conservatives' performance in addressing greenhouse-gas emissions. The previous government itself had committed the country to meeting strenuous targets on reducing emissions. Does holding the government to that count as advocacy? Ms. Gélinas's report seemed more deserving of congratulations than dismissal. Ms. Fraser has some explaining to do, failing which Parliament should consider making the role of environment commissioner independent of the auditor-general's department.

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