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Copies of the Ontario Auditor-General's report on the costs related to the cancellation of an Oakville power plant are on display at Queen’s Park on Oct. 8, 2013. (MOE DOIRON/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Copies of the Ontario Auditor-General's report on the costs related to the cancellation of an Oakville power plant are on display at Queen’s Park on Oct. 8, 2013. (MOE DOIRON/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

ADAM RADWANSKI

McGuinty’s capitulation on gas plants is a costly cautionary tale Add to ...

Maybe it will come out to a little more than $1-billion. Maybe it will wind up a little less. At the end of the day, other than to opposition politicians and headline writers, it doesn’t really matter how round the number is.

What matters, beyond the unseemly burden that will be borne by Ontario’s hydro ratepayers in return for relocating a couple of power plants, is the cautionary tale of what happens when a premier sets aside his better judgment to look out for his own political interests.

From the moment more than three years ago when Dalton McGuinty abruptly caved in to local opposition to a gas-fired plant in Oakville, through to the scrapping of a similar project in Mississauga the following year, that’s what this saga has really been about. But only after Tuesday’s release of an Auditor-General’s report on the Oakville cancellation was it possible to grasp just what Mr. McGuinty set in motion when he compromised his principles.

To be sure, there is no shortage of scapegoats for how that decision wound up costing at least $675-million, in addition to another $275-million for a similar, subsequent cancellation in Mississauga.

The Ontario Power Authority, the agency responsible for committing to these projects and then trying to negotiate out of them, has taken its share of blame for failing to get better deals. Now, it’s former political staff from the Premier’s office under fire for unhelpful interventions in the negotiations, including the unnecessary promise to “make whole” the company that was supposed to build the Oakville plant – a pledge that apparently caused the plant’s relocation to eastern Ontario to cost far more than it needed to.

The fact is, though, that all of those people were put in positions they shouldn’t have been in, because the rug was pulled out from underneath them.

For the better part of two terms in office, Mr. McGuinty had displayed a willingness to do what he thought was necessary to build up the inadequate energy infrastructure he had inherited, rather than what might be most politically expedient. And the Oakville plant in many ways epitomized that willingness. After it was green-lit by the OPA, Mr. McGuinty stood by the project in the face of protests by well-heeled suburbanites – arguing that it was needed to supply the fast-growing Greater Toronto Area, and even holding it up as an example of his lack of interest in NIMBYism.

Then, a year out from his toughest election at his Liberals’ helm, the former premier decided that saving the seat of Oakville’s Liberal MPP was more important. This decision was made abruptly, and the political staff and bureaucrats were clearly caught sufficiently off-guard that they blundered into the ensuing negotiations without much idea what they were doing.

It has since become fairly clear that Mr. McGuinty was influenced by people who ran his campaigns, who persuaded him to ignore advice he was getting from people who actually worked for government. But much as those operatives make for inviting targets, the responsibility ultimately rests in one place.

It was Mr. McGuinty’s job to balance off political interests and policy ones. For much of his time in office, he did a decent job of it. Then he failed, miserably, and now both the province and his party are paying the price.

Following the release of the auditor’s report on Tuesday, Mr. McGuinty’s successor Kathleen Wynne was stuck holding the bag – a position with which she is by this point well acquainted. Gamely striking the balance between being an apologist for her predecessor and a Paul Martin-style “mad as hell” reaction, she insisted the whole thing was a learning experience and held up as proof the promise of a new rule to prevent political staff from engaging in commercial transactions.

That may not be a bad idea, insofar as it goes. But one hopes it’s not the only lesson she drew. The more important one is to trust her own instincts and be true to her own beliefs of how government should be run – that is, if Mr. McGuinty’s mistakes don’t drive her from office before she’s there long enough to have to worry about such things.

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Follow on Twitter: @aradwanski

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