Ontario's Liberal government will face an audit of its $3.74-million worth of secret payments to teachers' unions.
All three parties on a legislative committee voted unanimously on Wednesday morning to call in Auditor-General Bonnie Lysyk to investigate whether the payments were a good use of tax dollars. Ms. Lysyk has until spring of 2016 to complete her audit.
The payments have been handed out to four unions to cover their bargaining costs since 2008 but were kept secret until The Globe and Mail uncovered them last month.
Critics charge that it should not be up to government to pay the negotiating costs of the unions and that the payments removed an incentive to settle quickly. The unions that received the money have also spent a combined $6.5-million campaigning in the past three provincial elections – including attack ads against the Progressive Conservatives, the Liberals' chief rivals – and donated nearly $800,000 to the Liberals over the past decade.
Progressive Conservative MPP Lisa MacLeod, who moved the motion for the audit, said she wants to know how the payments were spent and whether the government cut funding to classrooms to find the dollars. The province insists its labour deals with teachers are "net zero," meaning any new money in the contract was found through savings elsewhere.
"Where did this money come from?" Ms. MacLeod said. "It speaks to the issue of the 'net zero' we're hearing about from the government all the time. They're saying that the money is coming from savings. I would say that it's coming from classrooms … that money that goes into the education budget is 100 per cent intended for kids in classrooms, and when you look at undocumented payouts to unions that run attack ads against the main opposition party in the legislature, you have to wonder if that's an appropriate use of government funds. I think it's a misappropriation."
Education Minister Liz Sandals vowed to co-operate with the audit but would not commit to giving Ms. Lysyk every possible government document.
"I can't make a blanket statement; I don't know what she's going to ask for. I think that's something she needs to sort out with my officials," Ms. Sandals said on Wednesday.
When The Globe first revealed the payments, Ms. Sandals said the government did not ask to see any receipts before handing over the money to the unions. She later said there will be a "verification process" for the unions' expenses.
"There are accounting processes and verification processes and schedules of all allowable expenses. So, yes, there will absolutely be documentation, and the documentation we will share," she said. "But I'm not making some blanket assumption that I can fulfill every wish of the auditor-general when I don't know what it is she wishes to see. So we'll have to actually get the specific requests and we'll deal with them."
Four unions – the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association, the Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens and the Canadian Union of Public Employees – have received the payments over the years.
OSSTF, OECTA and AEFO received a combined $2.5-million in this year's round of bargaining; CUPE did not receive any money this time. A fifth union, the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario, has never received payments.