Ontario Premier Doug Ford, searching for significant cost-cutting in the province’s budget, has asked that a roadmap be delivered by this fall that finds reductions to government spending.
Mr. Ford is creating two new bodies that both will be responsible for quickly providing specific recommendations to cut expenditures and help rein in the deficit. First, he appointed former British Columbia premier Gordon Campbell on Tuesday to head an independent commission that will probe Ontario’s finances and accounting practices during the past 15 years of Liberal rule. Second, he said the province is looking to hire an auditor to conduct a line-by-line audit of Ontario’s $150-billion budget and suggest tweaks to future spending. The province already has an Auditor-General who conducts financial audits of the government’s books.
Ontario’s new Progressive Conservative government has given Mr. Campbell, noted for targeting spending as B.C. premier, and the two members of his commission less than six weeks to hand in a final report. The audit, which is being done separately from the commission’s work, is expected to be finished by Sept. 21.
“I want the people to have a full, honest and accurate picture of Ontario’s finances,” Mr. Ford told reporters on Tuesday as he unveiled the commission and audit, which together are expected to cost about $1-million.
“These two initiatives are the backbone of our plan to restore accountability … the commission will give you the answers about what went wrong and the line-by-line audit will give you the answers on how we can fix it,” Mr. Ford said.
The auditor will be given a wide mandate to look at all provincial spending, including expenditures across the education and health sectors, and will be asked to recommend spending cuts as well as programs that can be terminated.
“We are prepared for the likelihood that we might not like what we see,” Finance Minister Vic Fedeli said on Tuesday.
Since he was sworn in 19 days ago, Mr. Ford has moved to pare back government spending as part of his promise to “end the party with taxpayer money.” He has frozen government hiring and cancelled hundreds of green-energy projects. The Premier campaigned on a pledge of fiscal responsibility and that he would look into spending by former premier Kathleen Wynne. He often alleged on the campaign trail that the Liberals had “cooked the books,” a charge he repeated on Tuesday.
The Premier would not commit to following the advice from the commission’s report or the audit. But he said that the probes would be told to avoid recommending job cuts, a key Ford campaign pledge. The Premier, however, has already instituted a hiring freeze, which public-sector unions have warned will lead to fewer workers over time.
“We’re going to keep our promises," Mr. Ford said. "No one is going to have their job cut. We don’t need to cut jobs to find efficiencies.”
The opposition New Democrats said that Mr. Ford’s decision to hire outsiders to audit the government is wasteful and disrespectful of Auditor-General Bonnie Lysyk and her office. Ms. Lysyk frequently clashed with Ms. Wynne’s government over how the Liberals accounted for hydro and pension assets. In a pre-election report on provincial finances, she said that the $6.7-billion deficit projected by the Liberals for this fiscal year should have been listed as $11.7-billion instead.
“In a few months, you’re not going to be able to go through, in the kind of detail … and the kind of analysis [Mr. Ford is] talking about. That’s why you have an auditor-general,” NDP legislator Peter Tabuns said. “It’s not recognizing the value of the Auditor-General and she does excellent work. She’s not a lapdog, she’s a pit bull.”
Mr. Campbell, who was B.C.’s premier from 2001 to 2011, was chosen to lead the commission because of his efforts to clean up the finances in his home province, Mr. Fedeli said. Mr. Campbell undertook a program called the “core review” early in his premiership, which became a years-long focus on spending that put each ministry under the microscope and set ambitious targets to slash spending.
Al Rosen, a forensic accountant, and former federal civil servant Michael Horgan will join Mr. Campbell. The three men will be paid $50,000 each for their work on the report. Mr. Campbell was not available for comment on Tuesday.
According to Mr. Fedeli, the tight deadline is necessary so that the findings from the commission’s report can help shape the province’s fall economic statement and any subsequent budgets.
John Fraser, the interim Liberal leader, said that the Ford government will find a way to blame the Liberals for any financial problems highlighted by the commission. “That’s politics,” he said. “They’re already doing that right now. They don’t need a commission to do that.”
Don Drummond, who chaired a commission that looked into spending in Ontario’s public service in 2011-12, said that he wasn’t sure why Mr. Ford wanted to focus on the previous government’s spending.
“Is this a blame game? Why such a great interest in looking back on a fiscal year that is long over, while in the same breath it refers to the current year and future years. What’s the weight to be given there?” he told The Globe and Mail. He stressed that it would be very difficult for the new commission to finish its work in less than six weeks.
Mr. Drummond’s final report took more than six months to research and write. It contained nearly 400 recommendations.