Stephen LeClair: 'I was under no illusions that things would go smoothly'

By John Michael McGrath - Published on July 28, 2016
Stephen LeClair, Ontario's financial accountability officer, released his 2016 annual report this week.

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Stephen LeClair moved to Ontario in February 2015, leaving a high-ranking post in the Ministry of Finance in Yukon to be this province’s first financial accountability officer. The office was created by legislation passed in 2013, a concession to the New Democrats at Queen’s Park to keep the minority Liberal government in power. Since starting work in the spring of last year, LeClair has reported on the government’s sale of Hydro One, its fiscal projections for the future, and criticized ministries for their transparency. LeClair released his 2016 annual report this week. He spoke with TVO.org earlier this month about his time in office so far.

It’s been 18 months since you were named as the province’s financial accountability officer. What are your feelings about the job 18 months in?

It’s been a productive year. I was under no illusions that things would go smoothly right off the bat. There are the obvious requirements of getting the office up and running, and then there’s the learning curve of interacting with the government. I’ve been quite pleased with the product we have out, our annual reports and some others, and on the staffing side I’ve been fortunate to hire a number of very good people on my team. Overall, I think it’s been a good 18 months so far.

You mention a “learning curve” with the government. What do you mean?

I’m fortunate in that I used to be a public servant so I understand a lot of the operational elements, but it was more a learning curve in terms of our relationship. The legislation doesn’t say how we’re to operate; the legislation provides me with a mandate and the ability to set up my office. The learning curve has been in the interaction with the public service and the ministerial level of the government. Helping to explain exactly what my act is about, and the types of information I need to perform my duties, then to create processes that let us get that information when needed.

You’ve had an annual report as well as other special reports and commentaries. But one of your most recent public statements was about the difficulty of getting documents from the government. Did that surprise you?

The types of information they’re claiming cabinet confidences on have been a surprise to me, especially given part of the purpose of this office is to provide analysis on the economic and fiscal situation in the province as well as bills before the legislature. I would have expected, given my experience in other governments, that the forward-looking information would have been more readily available. Yet they claim cabinet confidence on it to a large degree. That makes doing my job very difficult.

You’ve previously warned that some of the government’s budget projections are, “subject to significant uncertainty.” Are there particular issues that stand out?

You’re referring there to our spring outlook. We did say we think the projections are on the more favourable side, they’ve left themselves exposure to downside risk if the economy grows more slowly than they expect, global economic effects could lower revenues in the province. But the uncertainty applies a few ways. One is that there’s a couple of large revenue areas such as equalization where there’s uncertainty because it’s an external program.

As well, there’s uncertainty from the flow of revenues from Hydro One because we’re not sure when they’ll issue the next tranche of shares.

And finally, we don’t have a lot of information on the cost side. That’s one area especially where they haven’t provided a lot of information about how they develop their cost projections.

You criticized the government, saying the sale of Hydro One will undermine the province’s fiscal situation. Seeing how it’s developed in the last year, do you think anything has changed?

First, I didn’t criticize the government for the sale of Hydro One. I didn’t offer an opinion on whether it is good policy or not. But I did say this would be, in the long run, a negative hit to the fiscal situation because the revenue they take in from Hydro One would decrease. So, we’ve seen the share prices go up, we’ll see how it pans out. It looks like it’s been a good sale for the province in terms of the amount of money from the sale. But it doesn’t change the fact that the government will only get 40 per cent of the revenue from Hydro One that they used to get. We still do believe it will be a negative hit in the long run.

That’s an important distinction you’ve made between criticism and your assessment. You can’t really wade into a debate over some of the policies and principles that MPPs hold, like whether Hydro One should remain publicly owned.

I want to stay away from making opinions on policy choices in government. That’s for the legislature to have a debate on. I’m there to provide information, so they can have a more sound debate on the numbers related to that policy.

Do you think there’s a problem in Ontario, of MPPs or others in politics trying to drag accountability officers into political fights where they don’t belong?

I haven’t found it difficult. Early on, I drew the line about what I’m going to talk about and what I won’t, and I’ve been fairly comfortable sticking to that. I recognize that when I provide information, people are going to use that in support of what they want. When I spoke to the parliamentary budget officer in Australia, he said, “Once that debate starts, stay out of it.” I think that was good advice.

When the legislation that created your office was being debated at committee, Canada’s first federal parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page testified at Queen’s Park his input informed some changes the New Democrats pressed for. Did you speak with Page before taking your office?

I’ve spoken with him in the past, but that was before I’d decided to apply for this job. I think it was before it was even envisioned. Since taking over I’ve spoken both to him and the current PBO. Mr. Page’s testimony was very effective in ensuring that the legislation ensured my independence. A lot of what he said was helpful.

Independence, but you haven’t escaped the fight over access that Mr. Page also had.

No, I haven’t escaped those. If within the five years of my first term I’m successful in cleaning up some of this uncertainty I’ll be happy. I knew it wouldn’t be smooth sailing overnight, and since I’ve made that statement to the press in the end of May, the government has spoken with me more about this issue. I’m hopeful there will be movement.

One of the more obscure issues you raised early on in your term was the government providing you data in formats you couldn’t use, or were more difficult to use. Has that been cleared up?

They’re giving us data in easier-to-use formats, yes.

What was the problem, specifically?

If we get a PDF of a spreadsheet, for example, we could probably run it through some software and get the data we need to put it into a table format, but clearly it’s easier and faster to just have the raw data. From my past in public service I know the government has this data in a normal spreadsheet format, so just send me that.

It’s actually part of the learning curve I was talking about. That taught us to be more specific in our request, how we want the information transmitted to us. We weren’t asking for it in that format and they didn’t provide it to us in that format. Now we do ask, and they do provide it.

Are there potential issues on the horizon you’re keeping an eye on that you can talk about?

I can’t speak too much about things that are still in the future, but we’ve already indicated that we need to do some more digging on the government’s plans to control health costs, on how they’re finding savings. There are a number of areas where we think we need more detail. We’ve posted our information requests online, so you can see the work that’s currently underway. We’re also going to continue to provide our commentaries online, smaller works that get into a bit more detail on numbers and methodology.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Read more — Ontario's accountability officers: Looking out for the public

 

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