The Ontario government will fast-track the creation of a new budget watchdog to assess public spending.
The governing Liberals agreed last spring to hire a financial accountability officer, in order to secure the support of the New Democratic Party for their budget. The NDP demanded the accountability office in the wake of the costly cancellation of two gas-fired power plants, arguing that such a watchdog could prevent such spending in the future by flagging it ahead of time.
The FAO, which is modelled on the parliamentary budget officer, will report directly to the legislature. The officer’s job will be to assess policies, bills and government decisions, and provide estimates on what they will cost.
“The financial accountability officer would be able to provide independent analysis to all MPPs about the state of the province’s finances, including the state of the Ontario budget, and look at the impact of economic trends,” Finance Minister Charles Sousa said at Queen’s Park on Monday, the first day of the fall legislative session. “What the financial accountability officer would be doing would be forward-looking, so you would call upon that person, he or she, when you look at proposals being brought forward to assess the integrity of those numbers and the impact that would have.”
As part of the budget process, the legislature agreed to keep the bill creating the officer on a tight timeframe. It will be introduced Monday afternoon, with a vote later in the week.
Government House Leader John Milloy said the bill will be reviewed by committee next week, and will come up for a final vote before the end of September. After that, an all-party committee will be tasked with hiring an officer, who will then have to set up the office. Mr. Milloy estimated the process would take a few months.
The financial accountability officer will join several other independent legislative watchdogs, including the auditor-general, the ombudsman and the information and privacy commissioner.
Unlike the auditor, who investigates spending that has already happened, the financial accountability officer would report on spending before it happens. Had such an office been in place in the past, it could have stopped instances of wasteful spending, said NDP MPP Catherine Fife.
“It could have been a preventative measure with regards to gas plants, but not only that,” she said. “There are other parties over the history of the province that have made poor fiscal decisions.”
Any MPP will be able to approach the accountability officer and request that he or she assess a piece of legislation or a decision. The watchdog will release its findings, but it is the legislature's choice whether or not to act on those reports.
Ontario will be the first province to set up such a watchdog.