It’s ironic that a premier elected on a pledge of leaner, more cost-effective government would kick off that quest with such a glaring waste of time and money.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford this week unveiled an Independent Financial Commission of Inquiry to investigate the province’s public finances and accounting practices under the previous government. He also announced that his government will soon hire an external auditor to conduct a “line-by-line audit” of that government’s spending.
The entire exercise will take about two months, and the government expects it will cost about $1-million. The three commissioners will each get $50,000 for less than six weeks’ work.
Thing is, the Ontario government already has access to an independent audit of its finances – from its Auditor-General, Bonnie Lysyk, who was paid more than $300,000 last year by the province. Ms. Lysyk has already issued a professional opinion that the previous government’s budget has not properly accounted for a couple of key items: surpluses in public-sector pension plans and the treatment of debts the government incurred to reduce electricity rates last year. The result, Ms. Lysyk has argued, is that the spring budget understated this year’s deficit by $5-billion.
Ontario also already has an independent watchdog charged with putting its budgets, the costs and benefits of its programs and its economic assumptions under a microscope. That would be the Financial Accountability Office of Ontario. It is a non-partisan body (its head is appointed by a consensus of all parties in the legislature) that was established five years ago to handle just the sort of thing Mr. Ford’s commission of inquiry is being asked to do. The FAO has warned about “structural deficits” that are higher than the previous government’s projections; it said in its spring report that these deficits “cannot be eliminated by economic growth alone, but would instead require fiscal policy changes to raise revenue or reduce spending.”
But apparently Mr. Ford feels we need a new body, one hand-picked by his new government, to investigate things that have already been investigated.
Frankly, no one would blame Ms. Lysyk and the province’s Financial Accountability Officer, Peter Weltman, if they handed Mr. Ford their letters of resignation. If you want to undermine confidence in their offices, hiring someone to replicate their work is a pretty good way to do it.
What’s more, it appears Mr. Ford already knows what the inquiry will find. “Under the Liberals, the books were cooked. The deficit numbers were faked,” he declared (not for the first time) at the news conference Tuesday announcing the inquiry and audit.
It’s hard not to feel like this is less a serious investigation than a smokescreen. The almost certain finding that the previous government had a chronic overspending problem that has left the province in dangerously deep debt (the publicly available numbers out there make that case abundantly), together with the possible conclusion that the budget deficits have been understated (as the Auditor-General has said loudly and repeatedly), will give Mr. Ford’s new government the cover it needs for any fiscal shortcomings of its own. Hey, just blame Kathleen Wynne – and do so with the stamp of approval from an independent commission!
Given what the Auditor-General and the FAO have already said about the Wynne government’s fiscal performance, it’s hardly necessary. But this scapegoating exercise will serve to draw attention away – for a while, anyway – from the fact that Mr. Ford’s government has no plan to address Ontario’s fiscal problems. Its only concrete plans to date will exacerbate them.
Economist Mike Moffatt calculated that Progressive Conservative election promises would cost the new government almost $8-billion a year. In the absence of deep cost-cutting measures that Mr. Ford’s government has yet to articulate, that would more than double the budget deficit.
Meanwhile, Mr. Ford has never offered even a vague game plan for reining in Ontario’s debt, which is north of $300-billion and climbing.
If he were serious about tackling the province’s fiscal issues, he would accept the accounting recommendation of the Auditor-General immediately and move on. He would embrace the FAO’s conclusions about the need to address a growing structural deficit, then ask it to investigate further and recommend concrete areas where his government could take action. He would turn his government’s attention to the recommendations contained in the 2012 Drummond Report on Ontario’s longer-term financial sustainability, then begin implementing them to reverse the province’s downward debt spiral.
What he wouldn’t do is spend $1-million looking to prove his predecessors “cooked the books.” Ontario needs to look forward for solutions, not backward for scapegoats.