The auditor general’s annual report is out, and the Liberal government might actually be able to breathe a sigh of relief this year, because Bonnie Lysyk hasn’t presented any bombshell revelations that would force them to run for political cover. Instead, the 800-plus-page report’s conclusions are mostly moderate in tone and focus on basic elements of good government, administration, and oversight.
Which isn’t to say that Lysyk’s conclusions won’t pose a problem for the Liberals as they head into an election year. It’s just that the problems are less glaring. There are some headline-grabbing, million-dollar cases of waste or misconduct (in particular, the energy file continues to give the Liberals headaches), but Lysyk’s more general theme this year isn’t that the government is misspending billions. It’s that administration can be difficult, and when a government is distracted by the events of the day (or by the years-long need to rein in a deficit), it can be easy for its leaders to lose track of things that maybe ought to be priorities, but that instead get pushed to the back burner.
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Some things the 2017 report addresses are directly relevant to some of the politically popular promises the Liberals will be running on next year. For example, the Liberals are bringing forward their youth pharmacare plan, which would pay for prescription drugs for anyone under 25. Fine idea, and the government says it will only cost an extra $465 million above and beyond what it already spends on subsidizing prescription drugs.
But, whoops, the auditor general says the government isn’t getting the best value for the programs it already has in place: Ontario continues to pay significantly more for generic prescription drugs than other jurisdictions. The report says the province is overpaying by roughly $100 million relative to a country such as New Zealand.
Or take the Ontario Municipal Board. The Liberals have finally fulfilled their promise to municipalities (especially Toronto) to defang the provincial tribunal that can overrule local council decisions. Lysyk’s team found that the Board wasn’t meeting targets for prompt hearings for the most common types of appeals, and recommended that the government devote more resources to properly training board members. That doesn’t mean that the government’s decision to reform the OMB is good or bad; rather, it means that whatever the government does with the Board, it’ll have to put more resources into it.
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And then there’s housing. The government has promised to address the critical shortage of affordable housing in Ontario — and especially in the GTA — with a variety of policies in their Fair Housing Plan. But Lysyk notes that the province basically abandoned affordable housing in the 1990s under the Mike Harris government, and that neither Dalton McGuinty nor Kathleen Wynne has restarted it. Existing affordable housing is in dire need of repairs, and contracts with housing providers to provide below-market rental units are expiring and not being replaced. And provincial rules have some perverse effects: municipalities find it difficult to work with non-profit organizations to build new social housing due to provincial and federal spending rules, while the province’s waitlist rules mean that someone who owns a home but records no income can technically be eligible for an affordable housing slot.
Three different cases, but in each one Lysyk comes to the same conclusion: implementing policy is hard; getting the details right matters; and even when it comes to priority cases (like reducing prescription drug costs), there are tradeoffs that need to be made. When things aren’t priorities (like the OMB or the affordable housing file), they tend to stagnate. And these are the files the Liberals most want to be judged on in the upcoming election.
The more obscure stuff in Lysyk’s report is also telling in its own way. Ontario is a relatively stable, peaceful place, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that the government hasn’t made emergency management a high priority. But some things are still alarming: Lysyk found that Ontario hasn’t updated either of its provincial emergency management plans (one is a general plan, one is specifically for nuclear accidents) since 2009. Emergency Management Ontario has been subjected to cuts and consolidation; its budget has fallen from $10 million to $6.4 million since 2009. The office is just one part of the sprawling Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services (which handles police forces and prisons) and was an easy target for cuts as the government tried to balance the province’s books.
Lysyk insisted that there is no reason to think public safety is at risk because of Liberal cuts, but that the province is nevertheless missing the opportunity to learn lessons and, potentially, avoid costly mistakes when even relatively minor incidents occur. Recall the 2013 ice storm, which left the government scrambling to respond as people in Toronto went without power — in some cases, for days. The Liberals rushed to provide help to families who had lost food due to inoperative fridges (remember lineups for gift cards?). Lysyk suggested on Wednesday that, through better planning, the government could avoid such panicky, reactive responses in the future.
A reporter once asked British prime minister Harold MacMillan what was most likely to knock a government off course (or so the story goes). He said, “Events, my dear boy, events.” Being in power is legitimately hard work, and trying to keep a steady hand on the policy tiller while constantly under fire from the 24-hour news cycle isn’t easy. If we take Lysyk’s report at face value, the Liberals haven’t done a stellar job of it across more than a dozen different files and nearly 15 years.
The opposition parties who lined up at Queen’s Park this week to proclaim how they would do better have a list of ways they could improve on the current party in power. But if they get their chance, they might want to remember that events come for us all in the end.