The Tories’ committee on Liberal spending sets a precedent they may regret

By Steve Paikin - Published on October 17, 2018
Doug Ford in the Ontario legislature
The government’s Select Committee on Fiscal Transparency has the power to subpoena witnesses and enjoin them to testify about the Liberals’ fiscal record. (Chris Young/CP)

There have been a number of historic developments since the Progressive Conservatives were sworn into power back in June.

Doug Ford’s government hit the ground running with a rare summer sitting of the legislature. Cap and trade: gone. Drive Clean: gone. Basic income pilot: gone. York University strike: gone. The Liberals as an officially recognized party: gone. About half of Toronto city council: gone. Election of council chairs in four regions: gone. More than $700 million worth of green-energy contracts: gone. Electric-vehicle subsidies: gone. Kathleen Wynne’s sex-ed curriculum: gone. The Liberals’ approach to cannabis retail: gone.

Whether you support or oppose the new government’s agenda, you can’t deny the breathtaking speed with which they’ve begun to impose it.

But there is one initiative Ford has undertaken that raises some profound questions about justice, fairness, and the impartiality of the people whose job it is to advise the premier and his cabinet without fear of reprisal.

The Tories have set up a temporary special committee of the legislature that has the power to subpoena witnesses and enjoin them to testify about the Liberals’ fiscal record. It’s called the Select Committee on Fiscal Transparency, which sounds worthy enough. Who would be opposed to more openness around government spending?

Initially, some observers wondered whether it was fair to have six Tories, three New Democrats and zero Liberals on a committee designed to put Liberal spending under the microscope. But it was all consistent with the rules at Queen’s Park, where only officially constituted parties can have representation on select committees.

This week has featured another curious situation, though, and one that I can’t recall having ever seen before in three and a half decades of watching Ontario politics. One by one, the committee has called forward some of the civil service’s highest-ranking officials, demanding to know what advice those bureaucrats gave their former Liberal masters.

This is truly troubling. Just as cabinet meetings are supposed to be secret (the minutes of the proceedings are typically not revealed for decades), so is the advice that public servants give politicians. You can imagine that if a deputy minister thought there was a chance he’d be hauled in front of a committee a few years from now, the advice he gave today might have a lot more to do with covering his backside than with speaking truth to power.

So we’ve had the spectacle this week of the most influential mandarins in the province essentially snitching on the previous government, insisting they’d warned the former premier that her plan to reduce electricity prices by larding public subsidies onto Ontario Power Generation’s books (rather than onto the province’s) was ill-advised.

Their advice might very well have been spot-on: the auditor general subsequently criticized the Liberals’ plan as essentially an accounting shell game.

But that’s not the point. The point is that public servants are being put in an impossible situation. Either they reveal the contents of their confidential deliberations with the Wynne government or risk alienating their current employers — the Progressive Conservatives — who want to get as much political dirt as possible on their predecessors.

This is not a question of whether the Liberals’ policies were sound. In fact, the auditor general was nothing if not absolutely damning about what she thought of the Grit record on fiscal transparency: “If we were private-sector auditors in this situation,” Bonnie Lysyk told the committee bluntly, “we would leave our client.” That is an astonishing thing for a non-partisan servant of the legislature to say, but it seems as if many Ontarians agreed with her.

This is about chucking out political norms — ones by which all parties have abided for decades. The Ford government has insisted that its temporary select committee isn’t a Star Chamber show trial but rather a good faith effort to show Ontarians just how awful the Liberals were when it came to managing public finances.

To the extent that the Tories can do that by respecting confidences and compelling public figures to testify, I say go for it. But they should remember that no government lasts forever. And if the new norm is to name and shame, then there’s one more thing they should keep in mind: what goes around comes around.