Watching the chair and the CEO of the Ontario Power Authority squirm in the Queen’s Park media studio on Thursday afternoon, it was hard not to feel a little sorry for them.
Jim Hinds and Colin Andersen are not accustomed to being grilled by reporters, and it showed – the former having to apologize at one point after calling a question about political interference “inappropriate,” both looking like they’d rather be anywhere else. Unlike most politicians they didn’t have any flacks on hand to call an end to the proceedings, so this unfortunate spectacle went on for nearly an hour.
But listening to the two men fess up over and over again to the energy-planning agency’s incompetence, it was also difficult to understand why heads are not rolling there.
Given the controversy around the costly cancellation of two gas-fired power plants, and the realities of minority government, the OPA had to know that failing to comply with a legislative committee’s demands for all related documents would be disastrous. Yet they failed nonetheless, in rather spectacular fashion.
In September, the government released some 36,000 pages, insisting that was the sum total. In October, it turned out that there were about another 20,000 pages the OPA and the provincial Energy Ministry had overlooked or omitted the first time. For four months, that seemed embarrassing enough. Then this week, it turned out there was yet another batch – much smaller, but still significant – that the OPA had also left out.
That there appears nothing especially sensational in these latest documents suggests the delay was not deliberate; that, as Mr. Hinds put it, the agency “messed up some search terms.” That’s likely what happened the first time around, as well. But that doesn’t negate responsibility.
Demanding that people who aren’t politicians fall on their swords for political scandals is not something that should be taken lightly. When that happens – as in the fallout from the eHealth Ontario mess a few years back – it can make it more difficult to attract good people, and leave those already on board spending too much time watching their own backs. In this case, though, consider the broader consequences and implications.
The second document dump effectively ended the political career of Chris Bentley, who as energy minister had repeatedly said all the documents were out; going forward, he could still face contempt charges. While it probably wasn’t behind former premier Dalton McGuinty’s resignation, as has been widely suggested, it played at least some role in his prorogation of the Legislature. Now, the latest round – in the first week of the Legislature’s return – has helped breathe new life into the scandal and impeded Kathleen Wynne’s ability to govern.
The governing Liberals don’t deserve much sympathy on this file; even if Ms. Wynne didn’t have much to do with it, her party’s willingness to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to help hold onto a couple of seats precipitated all this. But the fact that the fallout is yet again sucking up all the air at Queen’s Park is hardly a good thing for a province with much bigger worries.
Most importantly, as it pertains to the gentlemen on the hot seat on Thursday, it raises serious questions about the capabilities of their agency. If its leadership is incapable of searching and finding documents – at a time when that’s at or near the top of its priority list – how much can it be trusted with its more complex responsibilities?
Those responsibilities, as it happens, were already at risk of being taken away. Last year, aiming to take a small but symbolic step toward greater efficiency, the government announced plans to merge the OPA with another planning agency, the Independent Electricity System Operator.
The related bill didn’t make it through the Legislature before prorogation. But under the circumstances, and particularly if the OPA doesn’t take a clean-up upon itself, there would seem to be a strong case to revive it.