By Rob Ferguson
Toronto Star (May 14 2015) – Taxpayers will be kept in the dark as the government pulls an iron curtain across Hydro One, blocking its $9-billion sale from public scrutiny, Ontario’s outspoken auditor general and seven other watchdogs warn.
In a rare show of force, eight independent officers of the legislature — including the crusading ombudsman André Marin, who is seeking a third term in his post — signed a statement calling on Premier Kathleen Wynne to reverse plans to “significantly reduce” their oversight powers over the Crown utility.
“We take seriously our legislated authority to hold government and provincial agencies and corporations accountable on behalf of the legislature and all Ontarians,” they wrote in the statement first revealed Thursday on www.thestar.com .
Among others, it was signed by auditor general Bonnie Lysyk, who has accused the government of trying to “gut” a law banning partisan advertising at taxpayer expense, and Marin, soon to issue his final report wild billing irregularities at Hydro One.
Opposition parties, already critical of the Hydro One deal as a “fire sale” that will cost the cash-starved provincial treasury millions in foregone revenue, described the letter as “historic” and “extraordinary.”
“The Liberals are trying to muzzle these watchdogs,” charged NDP Leader Andrea Horwath. “It is shocking.”
Deputy premier Deb Matthews said the change in oversight is necessary as the Liberal administration prepares to sell 60 per cent of Hydro One, raising the $9 billion to pay down debt and fund more public transit to reduce gridlock.
“It is a different kind of oversight when it is a publicly traded company,” said Matthews, saying the government will appoint an internal ombudsman at Hydro One, which will be subject to regulation by the Ontario Securities Commission.
Marin, Lysyk and any other officers of the legislature will be allowed to continue with any investigations of Hydro One in progress, Matthews said, noting a former federal auditor general has been appointed to oversee the sale.
“I don’t think anybody’s trying to muzzle anyone,” she added, pointing out the government recently expanded the ombudsman’s oversight powers in other areas and agreed to NDP demands to hire a financial accountability officer.
But the watchdogs said there is a long list of scrutiny the government will avoid if the spring budget bill passes, making the changes in oversight into law.
There will be no more investigations like Marin’s billing probe, which has revealed outrageous charges to thousands of customers; Lysyk’s annual performance audits; public access to Hydro One records under freedom of information laws, or oversight of expense claims by the integrity commissioner.
It’s alarming the cut-off comes with the province planning to sell just a 15-per-cent stake in Hydro One as a first move, said Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown.
“There’s an issue of timing here . . . . Bill 91 is going to take away the oversight before that privatization even happens,” he said, referring to the budget legislation.
The statement was also signed by information and privacy commissioner Brian Beamish, financial accountability officer Stephen LeClair; integrity commissioner Lynn Morrison; retiring environmental commissioner Gord Miller; French language services commissioner François Boileau, and Irwin Ellman, provincial advocate for children and youth.
The officers are all hired by the legislature, through agreement of all-party committees of MPPs, and report to the legislature independent of government.
In their statement, they “encourage the government to reconsider its decision to remove independent officer oversight of Hydro One and its subsidiaries, given the government will control Hydro One assets well into the future.”
It’s the second attack on the government this week after Lysyk took the initiative to issue a special report drawing attention to her concerns about changes in the budget bill to the Government Advertising Act.
Wynne’s administration wants to “clarify” what constitutes partisan advertising instead of leaving a subjective decision to the auditor’s office.
Lysyk has warned the changes would turn her office into a “rubber stamp” and open the floodgates to partisan government ads.
The Liberals passed the law 12 years ago in the wake of ads that featured previous Progressive Conservative premier Mike Harris touting his government’s achievements instead of providing informational ads to citizens about government programs.
Privately, many Liberals complain the law went too far and tied their hands.