Dalton McGuinty has taken full responsibility for ordering the costly cancellation of two gas-fired power plants in the Toronto suburbs, conceding his government was wrong to move forward with the projects in the first place.
But the former Ontario premier claimed he had no idea how much it would cost when he pulled the plug and did not know the price tag would be so high until just weeks ago. And he deflected responsibility for the decisions from Premier Kathleen Wynne, saying she was largely in the dark about the file.
Testifying before a legislative committee, Mr. McGuinty, now a backbencher, was in full Premier Dad mode. He defended his decision to cancel the plants by evoking the image of children going to school in the shadow of industrial smokestacks. He scolded opposition MPPs when they questioned his motives. At one point, he even made reference to his mother’s home-spun wisdom.
“The cost to move these plants is higher than anyone would have wanted. Our government’s ability to get the right numbers out in a timely way has been less than stellar. And we have struggled to produce documents in a timely way. All of this is true,” he said. “But I strongly believe locating these gas plants in those communities was wrong, and relocating them is right.”
The Liberals pulled the plug on the plants, in Mississauga and Oakville, in the lead-up to the 2011 election. The move was seen as an electioneering tactic, designed to quiet local opposition and save Liberal MPPs, in whose ridings the plants were to be located, from defeat.
The cancellations cost an estimated $585-million – far more than Mr. McGuinty and his ministers initially said.
High-ranking officials with the Ontario Power Authority have told the committee that the government knew from the start the cancellation costs would be higher. But Mr. McGuinty insisted he had no inkling of the elevated price tag – to the incredulity of opposition members, who repeatedly asked him when he knew.
“Perhaps you don’t like the answer,” Mr. McGuinty chided Progressive Conservative MPP Vic Fedeli.
“I don’t believe the answer, to be perfectly frank. I don’t believe your answer,” Mr. Fedeli replied.
“This may not accord with your narrative – ” Mr. McGuinty said.
“Or the truth,” Mr. Fedeli shot back.
But Mr. McGuinty came as close as the Liberals have to apologizing for what happened, saying his government “was wrong” on the plants and should have cancelled them sooner.
“I regret that we did not locate those plants properly at the outset,” he said. “I regret that it took us so long to move on these decisions.”
In 2009, for instance, Queen’s Park enacted new rules governing the location of wind turbines, mandating they had to be a distance away from homes. At that time, Mr. McGuinty said, the government should have brought in setbacks for power plants as well.
But NDP MPP Peter Tabuns questioned Mr. McGuinty’s purportedly altruistic motives, pointing out that he waited until the dying days of the 2011 election to end the Mississauga project and allowed equally unpopular plants to move ahead in Tory and New Democrat ridings.
“Why were you listening to people in Liberal riding and not in opposition-held ridings?” Mr. Tabuns asked.
“It just wasn’t as high an issue in my mind,” Mr. McGuinty replied.
He said he had initially believed the Mississauga plant, which was having trouble getting financial backing, would not actually be built, and saw no reason to cancel it at first. It was not until the fall of 2011 – when the Liberals were coincidentally in a tight electoral battle with the Tories – that it became clear the plant would move forward if the government did not intervene, he said.
The committee hearings come at a sensitive time for the minority Liberals. They are in the middle of trying to pass a budget which, if voted down, would trigger an election. While the opposition has tried to implicate Ms. Wynne in the gas plant cancellations, Mr. McGuinty said she was never briefed on the file.
Even after Mr. McGuinty resigned earlier this year and handed power over to the new Premier, he said, he did not discuss the gas plant issue with her.
He also tried to downplay the role of his staff, who have been accused of meddling in sensitive talks over the cancellations. Rather, he said, they were merely keeping the lines of communication open.
“Some of the best political advice I got from my mother on my wedding day,” he said. “That advice is: Whatever happens, keep talking.”