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In Ontario power-plant scandal, cover-up is worse than the crime Add to ...

It is so, so much worse than it needed to be.

Yes, the decisions before the last Ontario election to cancel a pair of gas-fired power plants in Oakville and Mississauga were indefensibly cynical, and horribly expensive. They were, in some measure, symbolic of the extent to which a government past its best-before date was willing to do anything to stay in power, including belatedly bowing to community pressure that it had previously dismissed as at odds with the greater good.

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The fact is, though, that we would not still be talking so much about either decision if the governing Liberals had not lived up to the adage about the cover-up being worse than the crime – taking what could have been a relatively straightforward and not all that unusual case of a government spending its way out of political trouble, and turning it into a full-blown scandal.

The latest twist in this saga, as reported by Information and Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian on Wednesday, is almost breathtaking for both the brazenness and the self-destructiveness involved.

It is difficult to decide which was more ill-advised: a chief of staff to the energy minister violating provincial law by indiscriminately deleting all the e-mails he sent and received, or a chief of staff to former premier Dalton McGuinty going to the head of the Ontario Public Service shortly before power was handed over to Kathleen Wynne, and inquiring as to how one might go about permanently deleting electronic records.

Presumably there was something worrisome in those records, even if staffers tend to avoid using their government e-mail accounts for sensitive exchanges. But whatever it was – evidence of political meddling in negotiations to get out of the power-plant contracts, or advice ignored, or big numbers the government didn’t want out – it’s difficult to imagine it was anything that would capture public attention as much as Liberals violating provincial law (albeit a rather toothless one) by putting potentially damaging documents through the metaphorical shredder.

The obfuscation on this file hasn’t always been quite as shocking, and it has normally been somewhat more defensible. The Liberals can say they low-balled the cost of the two cancellations, now pegged at $310-million for Oakville and $275-million for Oakville, because they really didn’t know where the number would wind up when the final bill was tallied. They can argue, plausibly, that they pushed back against a legislative committee’s demand for related documents because they were wary of adversely affecting those negotiations. They can make a decent case that Mr. McGuinty’s prorogation of the Legislature at the same time as his retirement announcement last fall was about more than just the heat from the brewing controversy.

But the bottom line is that at every turn the Liberals breathed new life into this mess, rather than just doing their best to come up with the real numbers as quickly as possible after the 2011, taking the hit – which, at that point, might have been partly shared by opposition parties that also wanted the plants to be scrapped – and moving on.

That they let it get away from them so badly owed partly to their inexperience with minority government. They didn’t expect, for instance, that the legislative committee would make a somewhat mean-spirited move toward finding then-energy minister Chris Bentley in contempt when documents were slow to emerge. And such surprises seemed to make the Liberals, or some of them at least, behave more and more defensively.

It must also be chalked up to what prompted the power-plant about-faces in the first place. Under Mr. McGuinty, this was a government that was too much in survival mode to properly consider long-term ramifications. And when bad decisions started to catch up to it, it made more of them.

Still, there are Liberals who wonder why such a big deal has been made of it all. The answer is that they turned it into one.

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