Why the Tories’ inquiry is the Liberals’ worst nightmare

OPINION: It’s never good for a government when its dirty laundry is aired in public. But revelations from this week’s committee hearing strike at the heart of the Liberals’ identity, writes John Michael McGrath
By John Michael McGrath - Published on October 19, 2018
a man walking out a door
The Kathleen Wynne government granted special legal protection to provincial-agency staff who put the Fair Hydro Plan together in late 2016 and early 2017. (Christopher Katsarov/CP0

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The committee established by the Progressive Conservatives at Queen’s Park to investigate their Liberal predecessors has met a grand total of two times, and already there have been some interesting revelations. On Monday, the Select Committee on Financial Transparency heard from Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk, who reiterated all of her office’s prior objections to policies of the Kathleen Wynne government before noting something new: her office had also discovered that the government granted special legal protection to staff working for provincial agencies for their work putting the Fair Hydro Plan together in late 2016 and early 2017.

That’s highly unusual — agency staff don’t usually need to be protected from potential lawsuits for doing their job. High-ranking civil servants testifying at the committee on Tuesday (including the head of the civil service, Steve Orsini) conceded that none of them had ever seen anything like it before.

The civil servants, for their part, told the committee that they had explained their numerous concerns about the Fair Hydro Plan to the Liberal government, but were ignored. They had, for example, informed ministers and high-level staff that the Liberal plan to rack up billions of dollars in debt to temporarily lower electricity prices — which would then have to be raised later in the 2020s —flew in the face of years of energy-policy precedent and was so complex that it might not even be possible to execute.

It’s worth saying that, at least so far (emphasis on so far), the committee hasn’t devolved into a partisan show trial. There are fair concerns about whether high-level public servants should have been called to testify in the first place — concerns that Steve Paikin raised earlier this week — but it’s worth noting that both Lysyk and members of the Ontario Public Service have avoided saying anything inflammatory.

Tory MPP Ross Romano repeatedly tried to get Lysyk to call the Fair Hydro Plan a “shell game,” but she refused to use those words; other MPPs tried to get the representatives of the provincial bureaucracy to call the Fair Hydro Plan any number of bad words, but they simply reiterated that they had expressed serious policy concerns about it and then executed the policy faithfully when the elected government told them to, which it is the public service’s duty to do (they’ve already done the same for the Tories).

The committee members might have been hoping for a replay of April 2014, when the committee investigating the gas-plants scandal heard from Peter Wallace, Orsini’s predecessor as the head of the provincial public service. Wallace described the acts of certain Liberals — deleting emails from government computers — as “criminally stupid.” So far, none of the witnesses has said anything quite as explosive.

The decision to cancel the construction of two natural-gas power plants in the western GTA hastened Dalton McGuinty’s exit from politics; this committee probably can’t do any more harm to the Liberal party’s immediate prospects than voters did in June. But the revelations at committee may finally put to rest the idea that the Liberals were the “evidence-based” governing party. We’ve learned that they had ample expert evidence at their disposal telling them not to proceed with the Fair Hydro Plan but that it had become such an idée fixe among the upper echelons of the Liberal government that they couldn’t be talked out of it.

Similar revelations about a different party probably wouldn’t be as harmful. The Tories were undoubtedly warned by the civil service that cutting the province’s cap-and-trade program without replacing it would add billions to Ontario’s deficit, but voters understand that the PC government simply prefers lower taxes. Similarly, it’s easy to imagine bureaucrats warning an NDP government that buying back Hydro One would be expensive and may not accomplish much, but the NDP is committed to public ownership of utilities. The Liberals, according to their own repeated (and repeated and repeated) claims, were supposed to be the ones who consulted experts and then listened to them.

It’s not the first time the Liberals have squandered the opportunity to behave like sober technocrats — the less said about their interference in transit planning, the better — but with the Fair Hydro Plan, they may have racked up the biggest bill for the smallest return. The Scarborough subway may be a billion-dollar boondoggle the Liberals learned to love, but we may yet get a subway out of it. The Fair Hydro Plan has done nothing except add tens of billions of dollars in cost to the province’s electricity system — no additional value was added anywhere.

As is so often the case, we don’t need a special committee to tell us what the biggest scandals are.

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