Over a decade later, the Liberals have left more of Harris’s legacy in place than you think

OPINION: For all the fireworks about the Liberals' mismanagement documented in the auditor general’s report, the problems she found actually started with their predecessors
By John Michael McGrath - Published on December 2, 2016
a sign on a bridge sayin, "Danger due to fall hazard"
The Ontario government's handling of highway-building contracts has provided ample fodder for criticism. (Sheryl Nadler/Hamilton Spectator/CP)

Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk’s report this week predictably dominated provincial headlines. Detailed explanations — and eviscerations — of government misspending and errors always make life interesting for reporters and opposition MPPs, and slightly miserable for ministers who have to defend their work without impugning the dignity of an independent accountability officer.

The government’s handling of highway-building contracts provided ample fodder for criticism, here at TVO.org and elsewhere.  There was plenty to choose from: repeated hiring of problem contractors, vast gaps in oversight of both finances and work standards, and an unhealthy coziness between ministry staff and the private sector.

Another way of summarizing the problem: the Liberals have a terrible track record working effectively with private contractors.

That wasn't always the way our roads were built. As outlined in the auditor general's report, until 1996, the Ministry of Transportation did most of its road design and testing of construction materials in-house. That required a large staff of engineers within the public service, but it was how the province built the vast majority of its highways and bridges that exist today: 90 per cent of roads and 80 per cent of bridges, according to Lysyk.

However, Mike Harris wanted to shrink the ranks of the public service, and so that work started getting outsourced to the private sector. 

But before Harris had even left office, problems emerged. In 2000, ministry engineers started seeing evidence that roads were cracking earlier in their lifespans than expected, costing the government extra in repairs. The cause: Contractors were substituting cheaper materials in the asphalt cement to increase their profit margins on the projects.

That substitution would have been difficult, if not impossible, under the old system of intense government scrutiny and testing.

Lord knows the good old days weren’t immune to corruption or palm-greasing, but it seems hard to argue that the government would have let more than a decade of asphalt-mongering run amok the way it has in this case.

So why aren't the Liberals crowing about how this is just the latest evidence that Tories can’t be trusted to govern the province — a case they desperately want to make as often as possible before the 2018 election? Perhaps because, instead of overthrowing the legacy they inherited from the Progressive Conservative, they have largely maintained it. Lysyk notes that the Liberals have increased their reliance on the private sector during their tenure, outsourcing even more work to contractors and giving industry representation on internal government advisory committees.

The story repeats itself elsewhere. The Liberals, much as they like still like to campaign against Harris's record, have rolled back far fewer of his policies than they’d hoped to after defeating his successor, Ernie Eves, in 2003. Some of that is simply because governing is hard, but in other cases the Liberals simply decided the changes Harris made to this province are ones they can live with after all.

Kathleen Wynne got into provincial politics railing against what the Tories had done both to municipalities and school boards — she was an activist opposed to the amalgamation of Toronto and a school board trustee horrified by what Harris did to the province’s schools. But in 2016, school boards are still the tame, defanged creatures the Liberals found when they took over. They’ve never regained the power to raise their own local taxes and having little real independence from the policies of Queen’s Park. (We can argue over whether we actually want stronger school boards, but it’s pretty clear that in 2000 Kathleen Wynne, for one, did.)

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The story for municipalities is broadly similar. The Liberals have never reversed the most costly forms of downloading accomplished in the 1990s. Toronto still pays the full freight for transit operations that used to be heavily subsidized, and has a massive repair bill for social housing that used to be owned by the province. In smaller towns and rural areas, municipalities are struggling to handle policing costs Queen's Park doesn’t really try to rein in, and highways that used to be provincially-owned are still maintained by a rural tax base that can’t afford it.

The Liberals, naturally enough, would dispute this version of history, pointing to the uploading of some municipal costs or their massive expansion of education spending as examples of what they’ve accomplished. But it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the Liberals have entrenched more of the Harris legacy than they’ve reversed. And the exceptions — the places where the government has tried to do something new, or at least something more — are so often where the Liberals find a scandal.

The province desperately needs doctors and hospitals to adopt electronic health records more widely. It’s cost $8 billion so far, and counting. The McGuinty government thought getting the Ministry of Health and Long-term Care out of the business of running an air ambulance service was a good idea. They got the Ornge scandal for their trouble. They tried to “reform” the province’s recycling system a few times but relying on quasi-private agencies led to accusations of tax hikes by stealth — and, oh yes, grubby fundraising.

The common thread in all those stories is that the public got taken for a ride by individuals, or in some cases whole agencies, after the government removed some important functions from its direct oversight.

Some conclude, on the basis of those scandals and the auditor general's findings, that the problem is government itself, and that the solution is for government to shrink. But this week’s report is an apparently-necessary reminder that sometimes government needs to do things itself — things like testing road-building materials — if it wants them to be done well, or at least honestly.