Premier Doug Ford’s government moved to slash several key provincial watchdogs on Thursday, making the case that less oversight was producing savings in its efforts to balance Ontario’s finances.
The affected watchdogs, including the province's environment commissioner, provide independent, non-partisan oversight of government policies and programs to monitor public spending and compliance with laws and regulations.
But Ford cut or reduced several of these positions in a new economic update that was taking aim at Ontario's $15 billion deficit.
The changes were confirmed in a new provincial economic and fiscal review document that was called "A Plan for the People." It didn't include any details about how it would implement a plan to tackle the deficit, but promised significant savings in the months and years to come.
No timeline for balancing budget
The government said that a large part of the money to be saved related to shutting down a cap and trade market with Quebec and California and 758 renewable energy contracts and the halt of a planned increase to the minimum wage. The Ford government has said that shutting down Ontario's participation in the international cap and trade market and terminating the contracts was part of its efforts to demonstrate that the province was "open for business."
Ontario Minister of Finance Vic Fedeli told the provincial legislature that the first Progressive Conservative government in 15 years has “acted immediately,” and after only five months of governance are in a position to report significant savings for Ontario’s families and businesses as they promise to create more.
The update didn't set any timeline for balancing the province's books.
“This administration inherited a $15-billion deficit from the previous government,” Fedeli said. The significant shortfall is an inflated sum put forward by the Conservative government after it came into office on June 7 and performed a line-by-line audit. Ontario’s treasurer has said the province has already cut $3.2 billion in spending, pointed out the revised deficit will still be $14.5 billion, even though Fedeli is crediting the $500 million reduction to the Ford government's waste-cutting efforts.
In his first economic statement, Doug Ford scrapped Ontario's independent watchdogs for the environment, child advocacy and francophones, leading critics to say his government wants "no accountability, whatsoever." #onpoli
Live: Minister Vic Fedeli delivers remarks on the Ontario Economic Outlook and Fiscal Review. https://t.co/jDcKr7mjiO— Victor Fedeli (@VictorFedeli) November 15, 2018
“The premier of this province continues to say he wants efficiencies not cuts,” Fedeli told reporters after addressing the legislature. “I think finding $3.2 billion in savings in the few weeks we’ve been here is a pretty good start and I think returning $2.7 billion to the people of Ontario is exactly the relief we promised... It will take time. It will be an extraordinary effort.”
Out of the $2.7 billion, which is revenue lost from government coffers, the lion's share comes from the $1.5 billion in revenues lost after Ontario cancelled its participation in the cap and trade market. This international market generated income for the government that translated into financial incentives for businesses to reduce emissions.
Fedeli's update also included a promise to relinquish Ontario's jurisdiction over some major energy projects. The government said it wouldn't block interprovincial pipelines linking Canadian oilpatch producers in Western Canada to the east. The update did not make any similar pledge to facilitate electrical energy transmission projects from Ontario's neighbours.
There are no interprovincial oil pipelines currently proposed from the west to the east, but federal Conservatives have been trying to revive TransCanada's Energy East project, which was terminated in 2017 for economic reasons.
“What the government did today was a slap in the face to all those communities in the north, to First Nations communities, and it’s the wrong thing to do," said interim Liberal Leader John Fraser, at a news conference.
The Ford government also laid out a commitment to work with the Ontario Energy Board to develop regulations for the expansion of natural gas distribution in over 70 communities in Ontario. It will do so by "attracting private capital," according to the review, so that the program is not funded and managed by taxpayer funds.
Among some of the other highlights announced by Fedeli:
- The government is cutting taxes for 1.1 million low-income workers in Ontario.
- The hours of retail alcohol sales will be extended to between 9 a.m. and 11 p.m., seven days a week.
- As of Friday, rent controls will be removed for tenants moving into new buildings to encourage construction of new apartments. The government didn't provide a definition for what would be considered a new building.
- The government has promised to reduce red tape across the province that will impact labour reforms.
- Funding for a new French-language university has also been scrapped.
- The government has committed “to dedicate as many resources as necessary to fight forest fires across the province,” signalling additional funding on top of the $100 million it invested in August.
- Changes have also been proposed to the elections finance rules that have increased permissible political donation caps from $1,200 to $1,600
Fedeli denounces 'reckless spending'
Meantime, not everyone agrees that the Ford government's moves are saving money.
An independent analysis released in October by the province's financial accountability officer said that the move to end the cap and trade system would cost Ontario $3 billion. The federal government has also announced plans to intervene and ensure that polluters will have to pay, starting in 2019, while noting that Ontario's moves have made it more difficult to reduce carbon pollution.
The offices of these three long-standing commissioners — including the environment and French language commissioners and the children and youth advocate — will be folded into the duties of the Ontario’s ombudsman and auditor’s general, respectively. Whether, the commissioners still have jobs was unclear at the time of publication.
The government also announced a tax cut for low-income workers and rental controls.
Despite these cost-saving measures, the economic statement falls short of fulfilling Premier Doug Ford’s campaign promise to save Ontarians $6 billion every year.
“The current state of Ontario’s finances is of significant concern,” Fedeli told Queen’s Park on Thursday. “The previous government’s reckless spending and mismanagement left an unprecedented burden on the shoulders of all individuals, families and businesses in Ontario.”
“The fiscal hole is deep,” Fedeli added. “Everyone across the province will be required to make sacrifices without exception.”
A 'backroom government' that is less transparent
Opposition NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said that Premier Ford was making "his backroom government" less transparent through the changes announced in the update.
The decision to scrap Environmental Commissioner Dianne Saxe's office comes two days after she released an annual report that showed alarming levels of water pollution across Ontario as a result of decades of government inaction."
“It is a shameful commentary on the government’s priorities,” Horwath told reporters.
Horwath also expressed concerns about Ford’s efforts to “lump in” the watchdogs with the umbrella oversight offices of the auditor general and ombudsman. She suggested that the issues of the environmental protection, child advocacy and francophone services would suffer, as a result.
“It seems to be that (Ford) does not want to be accountable to the environmental commissioner,” Horwath said, noting that in the past Saxe has come out strongly against the Ford government’s inaction on the file. “Mr. Ford thinks he can do anything, say anything, and have no accountability whatsoever. That’s not what democracy is.”
“This is a government that doesn’t even have an environmental climate change plan in place,” Horwath said. “We’re left with a failure on three levels. We’ll have more pollution…we’re going to lose the opportunity to control the way we’re going to deal with those issues because its going to be federally driven and its going to cost people more money.”
. @fordnation is gutting our democratic institutions. By getting rid of the Environmental Commissioner @Ont_ECO and the Child Advocate in Ontario, he is silencing accountability. This is truly illustrative of what this government stands for. #onpoli https://t.co/LmrJ3BCROa— Michael Coteau (@coteau) November 15, 2018
Some critics said that the Ford government was gutting Ontario's democratic institutions.
"By getting rid of the environmental commissioner... and the child advocate in Ontario, he is silencing accountability," said Liberal MPP Michael Coteau in a tweet. "This is truly illustrative of what this government stands for."
Shawn-Patrick Stensil, a senior energy analyst with Greenpeace Canada, said that the elimination of the environmental commissioner was an attack on the rights of Ontarians.
"It's a cowardly move meant to shield the Ford government from public scrutiny," he said.
In a statement to National Observer, the Office of the Environmental Commissioner wrote that it would be consulting with the speaker of the provincial legislature to understand how its watchdog role might change through proposed legislation introduced on Thursday by the government.
"As we have for 24 years, we continue to champion Ontarians' environmental rights and provide people with the information they need about government decisions that significantly affect the environment in their neighbourhoods and across the province.
According to the legislation filed with the economic review, called the "Restoring Trust, Transparency and Accountability Act," much of the responsibilities of Commissioner Dianne Saxe and her office would be transferred to the environment minister or the auditor general.
If passed, the legislation would empower the environment minister to take over the educational component of the ECO's role. This would include the commissioner's current mandate to inform the public about participating in decisions or policy proposals that may affect the environment.
The Ford government has previously been derided — and taken to court — over its refusal to post its cap and trade cancellation act onto the Environmental Bill of Rights website to allow the public to provide their feedback and recommendation. The new legislation urges the minister, in his expanded role, to ensure this process occurs speedily and properly.
The legislation empowers the auditor general to "appoint a Commissioner of the Environment from among the employees of the Office of the Auditor General." The auditor general will be in charge of producing an annual report that will include a review of progress on activities to promote energy conservation and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
All employees of the Environmental Commissioner's Office will become employees of the Auditor General's office, the legislation states. Fedeli assured reporters that there would be no job losses under the Ford government, but was unable to explain how slashing the ECO would create savings.
“I think you’re going to see everything strengthened and expanded,” Fedeli said, outside the legislature. “There’s nobody so far in our government that has lost a job. These offices will continue and the Auditor General and Ombudsman will now staff up."
'Nationwide conservative movement to destroy the climate'
Green Party leader and MPP Mike Schreiner said the latest Tory moves send a dangerous message that could undermine or suppress important information, such as this week's report from Commissioner Saxe showing that over 1,300 tonnes of sewage was dumped into Ontario waterways over the past year.
“They are undermining the checks and balances that exist in our democracy,” Schreiner said. “(Ford) is moving the bureaucracy from one office to another office whose going to be less critical of the government. This really isn’t a cost saving measure.”
Schreiner said Ford had set out “an anti-environmental agenda.”
“There’s no business case for it. They’re saying they’re not going to protect Indigenous rights and consultation. There’s no interest in protecting our water. There’s no interest in moving forward and being a leader in the clean economy… they want to send a political message that they’re part of some nationwide conservative movement to destroy the climate. And I think that’s unacceptable.”
Editor's note: This article was updated at 4:57 p.m. ET on Nov. 15, 2018 with new quotes from politicians and additional background information and details about the economic update.
Join the climate conversation. If you want to find out more about Mike Schreiner's climate plan, join National Observer investigative reporter Fatima Syed for a live chat with the Green leader on Dec. 3 in Toronto at the CSI Spadina Atrium at 192 Spadina Avenue.
If you’ve made it this far, you must care about in-depth and responsible journalism. How about supporting more articles like this one. Get 60% off during our Black Friday sale (only $55.99, reg. $139.99) for access to Canada’s top investigations on energy, climate, the environment and more. If you’re already a subscriber, please consider gifting a subscription, just in time for the holiday season.