The auditor-general report reveals few big scandals — but says a lot about the Tories

OPINION: Some years, the auditor general’s annual release is a buffet of scandal. This report is more like a tapas bar of irritants
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Dec 07, 2020
Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk holds a news conference at Queen’s Park on November 25. (Chris Young/CP)

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Ontario’s auditor general releases a report annually on numerous investigations her office conducted over the year (or sometimes over the course of more than just one year). Sometimes, these are blockbuster investigations that uncover a scandal that goes to the heart of the government’s credibility: That’s what happened with the previous Liberal government and energy policy. The Tories recently got a taste of it in terms of their COVID-19 response.

But some years, there are relatively few AG bombshells, and instead we’re left with a drip-drip-drip of smaller items. They may not necessarily rise to the level of scandal but often make you wonder whether Ontario is actually trying very hard to find scandals before they show up in her reports.

Arguably, the most important chapter in this year’s report from Bonnie Lysyk is also the least surprising: Ontario is perennially failing to honour its obligations and commitments to Indigenous people, and this province lags behind others in how it collaborates and negotiates with First Nations.

For example, when it comes to land claims, Ontario plays the role of both defendant and judge: it gets to assess the legitimacy of land claims and also to decide compensation. Other provinces allow independent tribunals to play a larger part. Meanwhile, programs intended to support Indigenous people struggle because of a lack of long-term funding, and the small fact that nobody in government is even aware of the total number and nature of the programs available for Indigenous people.

It would be one thing if Lysyk’s report were breaking new ground, but her office concedes from the outset that a lot the problems she outlines were first spelled out by the Ipperwash Commission, whose recommendations the government hasn’t tried strenuously to implement in the 13 years since it produced its findings. The treatment of Indigenous people in Canada is and remains a scandal, but it’s no surprise.

We get closer to actual fireworks in the chapter on the regulation of condominiums. A very large fraction of new housing added in the province — and the very large majority in Toronto — is through condominiums, so ensuring that they’re well regulated to protect consumers ought to be a no-brainer. Instead, Ontario allows numerous practices that harm homebuyers. The condo developers who build the glittering towers often low-ball the maintenance fees that owners are charged when they move in, which ensures speedy sales but forces condo boards to raise those fees quickly after the development is sold (and the builder has moved on to the next sheep ready for fleecing).

Not that condo boards are uniformly virtuous: Lysyk’s report finds that more than 6,000 people who sit as directors on condo boards have failed to complete the province’s nominally compulsory training, and condo-board directors hold all the cards when matters get appealed to the relevant provincial tribunal. The province’s overseers, meanwhile, are largely ineffective and inspected or investigated less than 1 per cent of the province’s condo management over two years.

Bad news if you’re a condo owner, but you’re not alone. Several chapters in this year’s annual report show a province that seems to have largely decided that some matters will investigate themselves. Money laundering in Ontario? Casinos are identifying suspicious gamblers to the Alcohol and Gaming Commission, but neither the AGCO nor the OPP seems to be doing much beyond that, and, in any event, Ontario seems to be less energetic about this than British Columbia, where the levels of money laundering did finally explode into a scandal that province could no longer ignore.

Retirement homes? The province largely schedules inspections based on the results of prior visits, even if there have been numerous complaints. And if you’re discharged to a retirement home as an “alternative level of care” hospital patient, you regrettably fall into a black hole where neither the agency that regulates retirement homes nor the Ministry of Health has a systematic way to ensure quality of care.

And Ontario’s incuriosity doesn’t end even after you die: the provincial Bereavement Authority, which regulates funeral homes, crematoria, and cemeteries, inspected only 3.4 per cent of licensed operators between 2016 and 2020, Lysyk found.

Inspections are not a virtue in and of themselves, and as my colleague Steve Paikin wrote earlier this year, the inspections can certainly be corrupted. But the answer can’t be giving up on the most basic aspects of regulation and enforcement: it must be to do better.

It seems unlikely that the Tories will embrace a more ambitious regulatory agenda between now and the next election. But, as much as other parties enjoy the discomfort the auditor general causes the government in power, they might also take her reports as a guide to what they’ll do if they’re given a chance after the votes are counted in 2022.

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