Ontario's budget watchdog says the province's Liberal government is hiding information from him – keeping secret financial data on the controversial privatization of Hydro One, major infrastructure projects and spending in the health-care system.
In his annual report Tuesday, Financial Accountability Officer Stephen LeClair also says Ontario publicly releases less detailed fiscal information than other governments, including data that would allow people to check if budget forecasts are accurate.
The scathing indictment comes as the Liberals push to balance the budget next year. It is sure to stoke further questions about whether the government is really eliminating the province's structural deficit or merely using fiscal sleight of hand – such as one-time asset sales – to temporarily balance the budget before the next election.
As a result of the Liberals' stonewalling, Mr. LeClair says, his office has had to use other sources of data and do its own calculations to try to determine the fiscal effect of government policies.
"We shouldn't have to recreate this information. When the government puts forward an analysis, I see my job as looking at the analysis, looking at the assumptions and going into it and providing some verification there is sound analysis being done," he said in an interview. "Are Ontarians in the dark about it? I'd say yes. What happens is, the government doesn't reveal its underlying assumptions and forecasts used in the projections, so it leaves us having to create our own things because we're not exactly sure where the government has got its information from."
In one case, Mr. LeClair said, the government refused to provide information on the financial effect of its plan to sell 60 per cent of Hydro One, or how it arrived at its estimate of the sale's value. His own independent calculations ultimately showed that the sale will actually leave the province will less money in the long run because it will lose most of the utility's dividend.
He said the government also would not provide information on the cost and economic impact for individual infrastructure projects in Premier Kathleen Wynne's signature 10-year plan to build new roads, transit lines and other public works. And the health ministry refused to hand over spending projections broken down program-by-program so he could assess whether its overall cost forecasts are realistic.
Mr. LeClair said the government is misusing the concept of cabinet confidentiality – the principle that cabinet discussions are not disclosed publicly – to deny him access to information. Mr. LeClair said he is not asking the province to disclose ministers' opinions, only financial background information that they have at their disposal.
The Liberals have also cited cabinet confidentiality to avoid releasing detailed projections of revenues and expenses to the legislature. Mr. LeClair said many jurisdictions – including the United Kingdom, Australia and Alberta – provide this sort of information publicly.
"[The Ontario government] told us it would reveal the substance of deliberations for cabinet. I find that hard to believe, given that it is routinely disclosed elsewhere," he said.
Finance Minister Charles Sousa's office stuck to the "cabinet confidentiality" line when asked Tuesday to explain why the government was witholding information from Mr. LeClair.
"All three parties agreed that under the [Financial Accountability Office's] legislation there would be exemptions when it comes to cabinet records, personal information and personal health information. These exemptions are in line with the 2006 Federal Accountability Act as the federal Parliamentary Budget Officer doesn't have access to these types of records either," Fabrice de Dongo, a spokesman for Mr. Sousa, wrote in an e-mail.
Progressive Conservative finance critic Vic Fedeli accused the Liberals of hiding the numbers because the fiscal picture is less rosy than their planned balanced budget next year would suggest. "The government is using one-time money from asset sales, contingency funds and tax increases to artificially balance the budget in an election year," he said.
Erasing the deficit in fiscal year 2017-18 is a long-held Liberal promise. But it remains to be seen whether the government will actually bring down a budget that can stay balanced over the long term, or if it will depend on one-time measures.
NDP finance critic Catherine Fife has introduced a private members bill to broaden the FAO's mandate to allow Mr. LeClair to requisition cabinet records, a power the auditor-general currently has. Ms. Fife accused the Liberals of having a problem with independent oversight. "A Premier that's so focused on keeping secrets clearly isn't interested in what's best for Ontario families," she said in a statement.
Mr. LeClair first complained of being stymied by the government in May. Subsequently, he met with Ms. Wynne, Mr. Sousa and Steve Orsini, the head of the civil service, to discuss the problem. He said he has seen some improvements – including receiving more disclosure on the government's upcoming cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions – but that he is still getting stonewalled at times.
Mr. LeClair said he is meeting with senior officials in the coming weeks in hopes he can resolve the problem. If not, he will consider making a formal complaint to Speaker Dave Levac in the fall.
"That is an option that I still have and I still will use it if I don't feel we've made enough progress," he said. "I may raise the issue with the Speaker in the fall. That is still on the table. But right now … I'm hopeful that we can make progress."