Since they vacated the premier’s office, Dalton McGuinty and people who were around him have been treated as pariahs by most everyone at the Ontario Legislature.
For the Progressive Conservatives and New Democrats, every revelation about the gas-plants scandal or practically anything else has been an excuse to explain how Mr. McGuinty violated the public trust. For the governing Liberals he left behind, it has been cause to so distance themselves that they avoid saying the former premier’s name.
This week, though, both government and opposition sent a signal that they have more in common with the McGuinty Liberals than they would care to admit.
Public funds quietly being directed to friends and allies of senior operatives in Mr. McGuinty’s office, in some cases through spouses or numbered companies, is the sort of thing that would normally have all parties rushing to explain how they would do things differently. The same goes for accounts from former senior staff that they were offered salary top-ups that would be hidden from public view.
But when The Globe and Mail reported this week that Liberal caucus funds have been used in that way, the reaction inside Queen’s Park was uncharacteristically circumspect. While the typical pattern is for the government, opposition or both to respond to such stories with promises of new accountability measures, all three parties were tripping over themselves to avoid doing so.
The NDP putting its faith in a coming review of political staff conduct by the province’s Integrity Commissioner, whose office promptly clarified that the review has nothing to do with the sort of spending The Globe reported, was the most comical of the responses; the Tories saying that Lisa MacLeod had delivered their party’s only response, right after the MPP candidly acknowledged a lack of familiarity with the specific rules in question, wasn’t much better. Meanwhile, the Liberals noted their proposed accountability act could be amended at committee to address such expenditures, while declining to say whether they would bring forward or support such amendments.
From those who have worked previously at the provincial legislature, this response brought knowing nods. Among the parties, those sources suggested, there has been a tacit understanding that the opacity around caucus budgets – millions of dollars each year in legislative funds for partisan expenditures, some of which would otherwise have to be covered by their fundraising operations – works rather well for everyone.
None of this is to say that there is anything improper about any particular contract that has been awarded. Nor do we know whether the other parties have used their funds quite the way the Liberals did – awarding in the same year contracts to two different companies owned by their campaign director, or paying a campaign strategist between elections through a company in his wife’s name, or giving $320,000 to the company of a former chief of staff right after he was elbowed out of his job.
But we don’t know how the other parties spend their public funds, because most contracts are hidden from view altogether, and because there is no way to access information about the few larger contracts listed on the province’s public accounts.
If any party thinks this arrangement isn’t good enough – that Ontarians deserve more information about where their money goes – it wouldn’t be short on ways to prove it.
For starters, either government or opposition could voluntarily disclose the contracts awarded out of its caucus funds, retroactively or at least going forward.
For a more across-the-board fix, any party could propose to tighten the criteria for awarding caucus contracts, rather than leaving them entirely to the discretion of whatever staff member signs off on them. Or to make caucus and other legislative funds subject to freedom-of-information requests, as other public expenditures are. Or to lower, from $50,000, the threshold at which annual payments to any individual or company appear on public accounts, preventing the vast majority from being hidden from view.
They could do that, but in the past couple of days they demonstrated they’d rather wait for the negative attention to blow over and business to return to usual, the way it was under that former premier in whom they were all so disappointed.