Why the auditor general’s 2018 report is like Christmas for malcontents

ANALYSIS: Looking to give the gift of Liberal mismanagement, infighting, and political machinations? Bonnie Lysyk’s annual audit has you covered, writes John Michael McGrath
By John Michael McGrath - Published on December 6, 2018
Bonnie Lysyk, Ontario auditor general
Bonnie Lysyk released her annual report, detailing some of the greatest hits of the recently ousted Liberal government, on Wednesday at Queen’s Park. (John Michael McGrath)

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The Ontario auditor general has released her annual report once again, and once again it’s a litany of government mismanagement and waste. Perhaps the biggest piece of good news: Bonnie Lysyk says that the massive refurbishment of the Darlington nuclear station is reasonably on-budget.

More than 1,000 pages over two volumes (which include this year’s audits of various government agencies and ministries and follow-ups on prior audits), the report details some of the greatest hits of the recently ousted Liberal government.

Some chapters provide more on things we already knew — most notably about Metrolinx, the regional transit planning agency. The AG’s office finds that the Liberal government and Toronto mayor John Tory interfered in the planning process for the location of two GO train stations. (It’s hard to make a case for either the Kirby station or the Lawrence East station — part of John Tory’s much-reduced “SmartTrack” plan — based on ridership figures.)

The Liberals used a number of accounting tricks to grease the skids for these stations: they assumed, for example, that GO train riders would entirely abandon their cars and therefore save money — but how were motorists supposed to do that when Kirby station has no connecting transit service and GO stations are always built with massive free parking lots? The Ministry of Transportation also encouraged Metrolinx to — don’t laugh — reconsider the value of time itself in order to make Kirby seem more appealing in their models.

The fundamental problem with the Metrolinx set-up is that no politician wants to commit billions of dollars to an independent agency without in return getting the opportunity to muck about with the plans. The Liberals basically laundered their politicized transit planning through the shell of a nominally independent and technocratic agency.

According to the AG’s report, though, the problem goes beyond Metrolinx. A number of agencies were given mandates they simply haven’t been able to meet.

Lysyk’s section on Waterfront Toronto and its deal with Google affiliate Sidewalk Labs will certainly raise some eyebrows: the tri-governmental agency seems to have bent some of its own rules to accommodate the company’s demands.

But her more comprehensive assessment of Waterfront Toronto is at least as important: although it has been tasked with the massive and important job of redeveloping the city’s waterfront after decades of post-industrial blight, the agency neither owns the public lands it’s responsible for nor controls the planning process for them. The audit finds that it was never given the authority to actually do the job with which it was tasked: “As a result, the development of Toronto’s waterfront lands has largely continued to be driven by historical practices, the existing bylaws, and other regulations.”

Would the alternative have worked? The agency the auditors envision would have had more planning power than any municipality in Ontario: it would have meant less power (and property) for Toronto city council — and possibly a massive political fight between Toronto, development interests, and other municipalities (which have their own waterfronts).

Even some agencies in core areas of government have been given jobs but not the powers to execute them. Health Quality Ontario, for example, is responsible for tracking health-care quality in the province, but it can’t make providers follow its advice. It develops evidence-based care standards, but it doesn’t measure or report on how quickly doctors, hospitals, and long-term care homes are adopting them. Why not? There are undoubtedly convoluted public-policy reasons, but it would be naive not to consider the political power of doctors, hospitals, and the Ministry of Health and Long-term Care (whose budget is greater than some provinces’).

It may be easy to create a new agency to deal with a problem, and it’s true that a team functioning outside the government’s direct control can often do things that someone in the bowels of a ministry office can’t. But there’s no escaping politics — whether you’re trying to build a regional transit plan, redevelop the provincial capital’s waterfront, or provide the best possible health care for millions of patients.

The people inside these agencies know this well. This week’s report contains a comment from Metrolinx indicating that the agency “welcomes the Auditor General’s recommendations pertaining to clarifying its relations with the Ministry (of Transportation) and municipalities in planning the regional transportation system.”

In an otherwise dry document, a remark such as this actually reads as sarcastic — if not downright saucy.

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