Wildrose leader Brian Jean is furious with the NDP government’s response to two reports on the Fort McMurray wildfire.
He says the government is attempting to whitewash the reports’ findings and delayed releasing them in a shocking display of arrogance which is “totally unacceptable in any democracy.” He wants a judge-led independent public inquiry into the matter.
Right. Let’s give Brian a moment to catch his breath while we consider the points he’s raised.
Governments and businesses are as different as chalk and cheese however when they conduct an audit they apply the same audit processes.
After a serious incident both will retain an independent third-party auditor to determine what went right, what went wrong, and what can be done to improve performance in the future.
In this case the NDP government hired KPMG and MNP, two highly reputable chartered accounting and audit firms, to review the government’s response to the Fort McMurray wildfire and provide recommendations for improvement.
The government received the final versions of the audit reports in May 2017. The government intended to release both reports on June 13, 2017 but they were leaked by the media on June 9, four days before the government’s release date.
The leak gave Mr Jean a chance to grab the spot light and accuse the government of disgracefully attempting to mislead the public by whitewashing the reports and delaying their release.
Had Mr Jean worked for a publicly traded corporation in the private sector at any point in his career he would have understood that the KPMG and MNP reports are part of an audit process. The audit process is comprised of four parts: (1) the auditor gathers the facts, (2) he analyses them, (3) he makes a number of recommendations and (4) the client (government or corporation) develops an implementation plan that responds to each recommendation.
It is irresponsible for a client (government or corporation) to release an auditor’s report to the public that is not in its final form and without an implementation plan.
It takes time to develop a robust implementation plan to address a complex situation.
In this case the government engaged with federal, extra-provincial, and local governments, NGOs and First Nations as well as key government departments including emergency management, public health, environment, agriculture and forestry, and OH&S.
The government started this work well before it received the audit reports, but couldn’t finish until it received the final draft of the second audit report on May 20, 2017.
A three-week delay from the day the government received the final versions of the auditors’ reports and its release of the reports plus its implementation plans is not a shocking display of arrogance or a blow to democracy; it’s a prompt professional response by a government that wants to get the job done right (and a much faster turnaround than anything Ms Soapbox has witnessed in the private sector).
“Lives at risk”
Mr Jean says the government failed to respond to the wildfire in a timely manner and thousands of lives were at risk.
Mr Jean may believe this to be true but the audit reports do not confirm his allegation.
The KPMG report said the government successfully handled a disaster of “extraordinary scale” by integrating the lessons learned from past disasters. It notes the Emergency Management Agency and government departments performed well then goes on to provide 21 recommendations to improve how the government interfaces with local authorities, non-governmental agencies, the federal government, industry, aboriginal groups and communities.
The MNP report focused on the department of Agriculture and Forestry. It said the department recognized the wildfire hazard to be high and was prepared earlier than usual. It provides 10 recommendations including advancing the start of fire season, improving wildfire-related forecasting and improving and expanding strategic and operational capacity.
The most compelling assessment of the government’s response comes from a fire fighter who battled the blaze which became known as The Beast.
Fire chief Jody Butz said “Obviously, in reflection, we can all agree [the response] wasn’t soon enough…but in understanding the size and the scale of how this wildfire had blown up, for all intents and purposes, I think the work done from that point forward was incredible.”
The Beast raged for five weeks. It consumed 589,000 hectares. It leapt over the Athabasca River where it was one kilometer wide. It’s the worst disaster in Canadian history; 88,000 people were safely evacuated, two unfortunate souls lost their lives traveling on the highway.
A political response
Mr Jean may choose to cherry pick and inflate the findings of the audit reports but he should heed the warning contained in the MNP report: while the first 36 hours of a wildfire are critical “it is not possible to determine whether any alternative decisions or actions … would have resulted in a different outcome.”
A businessman will accept the results of a professional audit. A politician will second-guess decisions made and actions taken from the safety of his arm chair hoping to set off a political firestorm.