Under heavy fire and facing a possible audit, Premier Kathleen Wynne has pulled an abrupt U-turn, telling a surprised legislature she will force teachers' unions to provide receipts before they receive multimillion-dollar payments to cover negotiating expenses.
Education Minister Liz Sandals previously insisted no receipts from the unions were necessary.
"Before that money flows, there will be an accounting of how that money is used and what that money is for and what the costs were," the Premier said in Question Period on Wednesday. "The teachers' unions will be required to provide an accounting before the money flows so it will be clear exactly how the costs were incurred."
The province agreed to pay $2.5-million this year to the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation (OSSTF), the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association (OECTA) and the Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens to compensate them for their bargaining costs in contract negotiations. In two previous rounds of negotiations, the government handed over $1.24-million.
The government has been making the payments since 2008, but they came to light only last week after The Globe and Mail obtained copies of two of the confidential deals.
How the province will compel the unions to show their expenses is not clear. The documents obtained by The Globe say only what the province will pay, and contain no provision for the unions to provide an accounting. On Wednesday, Ms. Sandals suggested the government is still sorting out the exact "verification requirements."
"We will flesh out what the details are as we go through the transfer process before we actually issue the cheque," she said. "There will be an accountability process, there will be a verification process and we will make sure the spending is in acceptable areas."
Ms. Sandals would not say whether the itemization of costs will be released publicly. And Ms. Wynne would not commit to support a Progressive Conservative motion to call on Auditor-General Bonnie Lysyk to investigate the payouts.
PC deputy leader Sylvia Jones urged the government to vote in favour of the Tory motion at the public accounts committee.
"Bring the Auditor-General in. Let her be the third-party verification," Ms. Jones said. "If [Ms. Wynne] is now saying they will provide receipts, let the Auditor-General do her job, and hope the Liberal members of the public accounts committee allow that to happen."
On a talk show on Wednesday, OSSTF president Paul Elliott said that during previous rounds of bargaining, his union had to show the government how it spent the compensation money.
"We had to sign attestation papers, we had to give a full accounting of how that money had been spent, and we will have to do the same thing now," he said on CP24's Live at Noon.
When host Stephen LeDrew asked Mr. Elliott how that squares with Ms. Sandals's assertion last week that she did not have to see receipts, he said he did not know, but "that money is accounted for."
Some critics argue the payouts are not a good use of tax dollars. The teachers' unions that received the money have a combined 100,000 members, who pay dues to fund activities such as collective bargaining.
On Wednesday, Toronto Mayor John Tory told reporters he had "never heard of such a thing" as an employer paying a union's negotiating costs in his many years in politics and business. Mr. Tory was a PC leader and, before that, an executive at Rogers Communications.
"I sort of figure when you're negotiating, you bear your own costs. And unions have a source of revenue for that, as do the other people on the other side of the table," he said. "I don't think it's necessary and I don't think it's the right thing to do."
He said that when he was provincial Opposition Leader, he did not know about the payments.
"Had I known that anybody in government was writing cheques to unions or anybody else to do with negotiations, I would have said: 'Why are we doing that? We have enough things to spend our money on, that are important to people, that are seen as appropriate. And this just wouldn't be one of them,'" he said.
Also Wednesday, OECTA responded to The Globe's report this week that the teacher unions spent more than $6.5-million in the past three provincial election campaigns and donated nearly $800,000 to the Ontario Liberal Party over the past decade. In a statement, OECTA said it is "wrong" to characterize its election advertising as "attack ads," and said it is non-partisan and donates to all three parties.
"To suggest that these ads were in any way opposed to, or supported, any political party is incorrect. OECTA is a politically neutral organization that is focused, first and foremost, on the interests and needs of our students and members," the statement read.
But some ads OECTA helped bankroll in the last election carried a sharply anti-PC message.
In one spot by Working Families, a union umbrella group financed partly by OECTA, an announcer accused the Tories of "misleading voters again" and said "we can't trust Tim Hudak and the Ontario PCs with our future." Another ad featured a cartoon of Mr. Hudak, the Tory leader at the time, as Pinocchio, with his nose growing as he made election promises.