Ontario’s new populist premier playing politics with Commission of Inquiry

dougfordThe highly politicized manner in which newly-elected Ontario premier, Doug Ford, announced a commission of inquiry this past week into how 15 years of previous Liberal governments handled the province’s finances has already tainted its outcome, whatever that may be.

Commissions of Inquiry are no small matter; they are normally called to look into the most serious and urgent public issues, often in the wake of tragic events involving serious crimes or other wrongdoing.

Thus, the setting up of a commission of inquiry carries with it the understanding or actual knowledge that serious wrongdoing has, or may have, taken place. They are not entered into lightly, or for spurious reasons.

The Independent Financial Commission of Inquiry, announced last week by the Ford “Government for the People,” does more than suggest serious wrong-doing by Liberal governments led in recent years by now-former Premier Kathleen Wynne, and before her, former Premier Dalton McGuinty. Ford’s own words, at a press conference this past Tuesday, and as quoted in a news release, speak as though it’s a foregone conclusion.

“One of my first actions as premier was to bring in the best and the brightest to build on the great work of the Auditor General, follow the money and shine a light on the darkest corners of the government,” Ford said a news release issued from the Premier’s Office. “You deserve to know where your hard-earned money is going, how it was being wasted and how we’re going to fix it.”

In fairness to Wynne and McGuinty, and other members of those governments whose reputations are now impinged, Ford has a moral obligation to offer more specifics about the reasons why a commission of inquiry is justified.

He should also explain why the province’s existing, independent financial watchdogs – the Auditor-General and/or Financial Accountability officer – have not been asked to do the job; or, if the indications of suspected wrongdoing are indeed that serious, why it has not been referred to police for an investigation.

Such provincial watchdog audits, or police investigation, would doubtless take far longer than the August 30 deadline the newly appointed Commission has been given to report its findings.

The Commission is being led by Gordon Campbell, a former Liberal premier of B.C., from 2001 to 2011. The two other commissioners are Al Rosen, a forensic accountant, and Michael Horgan, a former senior federal bureaucrat. They are to be paid $50,000 each for their work. The Ford government also plans to hire a firm to conduct a “line-by-line” audit of the province’s financial books, with that to be done by Sept. 21. The entire exercise – commission of inquiry and audit – has been allocated a budget of $1 million.

I assume the three commissioners are honourable men. But if I had been in their shoes Tuesday when Ford formally announced the inquiry I would have found his language cringeworthy.

Ford spoke to those he regards as the long-suffering people of Ontario when he said, “you’re fed up with being deceived, fed up with paying more and getting less, fed up with the shady accounting tricks because in the last 15 years nothing was off the table. Even Ontario’s budget numbers under the Liberals, the books were cooked. The deficit numbers were faked.”

dougford2

Ontario Premier Doug Ford

Ford was asked if he would accept and implement all the findings of the inquiry and audit, according to a Canadian Press article carried by numerous news outlets. He said he was looking forward to them with excitement.

During the recent spring election campaign Ford, as Progressive Conservative leader, offered few details about how a PC government, if elected, would reduce the government’s operating deficit, except to say it would find $6 billion dollars worth of “efficiencies.”

The now-former Liberal government estimated its 2018-19 budget deficit at $6.7 billion. But in a pre-election report Auditor-General Bonnie Lysyk said that was a huge underestimate, that it would instead be $11.7 billion. The projected Liberal deficit for 2020-2021, if the Wynne government had been re-elected, was $6.5 billion; but Lysyk said it would actually be $12.5 billion.

The Liberals attributed the discrepancy to a difference of opinion regarding accounting methods.

Presumably, the new Ford government is engaged in taking a closer look at the financial information already compiled by the Auditor-General. It does, after all, include some MPPs with plenty of experience of how Queen’s Park works, including Finance Minister Vic Fedeli.

Peter Tabuns, an NDP member of the Legislature, suggested Ford may be setting the stage with the commission of inquiry for his cost-cutting agenda. I tend to agree, except I suspect it will more than likely give Ford the righteous excuse he needs for much deeper cuts than $6 billion worth of efficiencies.

Interim Liberal leader, John Fraser, said no matter what the inquiry comes up with, Ford will find a way to blame the Liberals for any financial problems.

I sense an even more ominous political agenda. The Liberal defeat in the election saw them fall from majority government, to just seven seats, without Official Party status. It will take many years for the Ontario Liberal party to recover, if it can. Ford may have been looking for a way to blacken the reputation of the Liberals to the extent that they never can. The Independent Financial Commission of Inquiry looks like it may be that way.

His words revealed the underlying truth: It’s political. And that is a misuse of the Commission of Inquiry process.

 

A version of this post was originally published in The Sun Times in July, 2018

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