#onpoli newsletter: How to fix long-term care

How independent is Ontario's independent commission into long-term care going to be?
By Steve Paikin and John Michael McGrath - Published on May 21, 2020
Ontario Minister of Long-Term Care Dr. Merilee Fullerton (Frank Gunn/CP)

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Hello, #onpoli people: 

On Tuesday, the provincial government announced that an independent commission would investigate Ontario's long-term care sector — the source of most of the province's COVID-19 deaths. 

But that’s not enough for NDP leader Andrea Horwath, who is calling for a public inquiry into the matter. Podcast hosts Steve Paikin and John Michael McGrath examine the issue.

Woman places flowers on the ground
A woman lays flowers outside of Orchard Villa Care home, in Pickering (Chris Young/CP)

The pros and cons of a commission

Steve Paikin:  This has clearly been one of the most important weeks in the relatively brief history of the COVID-19 pandemic: we got our first signs of economic reopening; we had the school year definitively cancelled; overnight summer camp bit the dust (despite the best efforts of the premier’s nephew, who told his uncle to “get on that” and make a decision). Perhaps most significantly, the provincial government yielded to pressure by agreeing to strike an independent commission to examine the long-term care sector in Ontario. As we all well know, long-term care has been ground zero for this pandemic — about three-quarters of the deaths have occurred in that community. Give me your take on the government’s decision, John Michael, to go for an independent commission rather than a full-blown public inquiry. What are the plusses and minuses of choosing to go that route?

John Michael McGrath: This debate can be kind of abstract for people who aren’t big dorks for provincial politics like us, but it boils down to a pretty simple question: how independent is this independent commission going to be? If the government had gone with a public inquiry, as the opposition parties have been demanding, we’d know the answer already because the broad powers of a public inquiry are spelled out in law. Also, they’ve been called on to investigate government failure in the past — everything from SARS and Walkerton to the collapse of the Algo Mall roof in Elliott Lake. An independent commission is a different beast: the government determines its scope, powers, and reporting deadline. This is notable, since the government says it wants a speedy result. In effect, the government is saying it’s less interested in the kind of comprehensive report that a public inquiry would provide and more interested in getting advice that it could actually use  to inform policy changes before the next election. The thing we don’t know yet is whether the government will be stacking the deck, so to speak, to make sure their “independent” commission provides them with the answers they want — a strategy that’s hardly unheard of in Ontario politics.

Plenty of blame to go around

Steve: Well, the devil is certainly in the details when it comes to these things. A public inquiry is normally presided over by a respected judge. That’s not necessarily the case for an independent commission, so the choice of who will chair this thing is crucial. A smart government would consult the opposition parties and get their buy-in on the choice, so no one can complain after the fact. The fact is, these commissions often sink or swim before they’ve even heard one witness: the personnel matters in terms of public acceptance and confidence. Often, governments strike these commissions or inquiries because they’re trying to get a story off the front pages, at least temporarily. We all know that’s not going to happen this time because the pandemic isn’t going anywhere. And besides, all three parties have played a role in bringing the long-term care sector to its current state. I’m sure there’ll be plenty of blame to go around.

John Michael: Undoubtedly. The issue of blame is important, because the immediate precedent of an independent commission is the one struck by the Ford government early in its tenure to suss out the “true” state of the province’s deficit. It came up with a $15 billion figure — a number has not been endorsed by either of the province’s independent officers of the legislature. (Fun fact: literally every change in governing party at Queen’s Park in my lifetime has involved a new government “discovering” their predecessors had hidden the true state of the province’s budget, going back to David Peterson in 1985.) The government can choose to go that route if they want, but there’s a risk here. Big, substantial reforms to a sector like long-term care need to be supported by more than just the current government if they’re going to last. If the opposition parties see this commission as nothing more than a smokescreen for the Tories to do what they want, any reforms could be short-lived.

Just a reminder...

Want to know more? Check out the latest episode of #onpoli for more Queen’s Park analysis. 

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