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ontario politics

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty delivers a speech to the Ontario Liberal annual general meeting in Ottawa on Sept. 29, 2012.Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press

Canada's largest province is labouring under a huge budget deficit, stagnant growth projections and serious concerns about its future quality of life and the survival of its core social programs. Everyone at Queen's Park knows this; everyone agrees that the focus should be on structural reforms and economic-development strategies and other urgent things.

And yet here we are, back to talking about a topic that has dominated Ontario politics for much of this fall: the decisions before the last election not to build a pair of gas-fired power plants.

For those who don't pay rapt attention to the provincial Legislature, this is the issue that at one point shut down regular debate for more than a week, as opposition parties pursued a contempt finding against Energy Minister Chris Bentley for being slow to release documents related to the costly cancellations of projects in Oakville and Mississauga. Now, regardless of whether or not normal legislative business proceeds, it will again consume a disproportionate share of the government's attention, and impede its ability to actually govern.

A few days ago, Dalton McGuinty's Liberals were expressing optimism that they would finally get to start talking more about forward-looking policies. Then it emerged on Friday that the documents they finally released under considerable duress last month – the ones Mr. Bentley and others repeatedly insisted were the total, complete package – had in fact been missing some 20,000 pages.

So now we're in for weeks of resignation calls, and probably more contempt charges, and allegations that there are still more missing documents, and debate over just how many hundreds of millions of dollars it cost to scrap those projects.

On Friday, the provincial Tories floated a $1-billion figure that seemed to come more or less out of thin air – and hey, why not? It's not as though the government has the credibility on this file to refute anything. In their more unguarded moments, many Liberals concede that if they were in opposition, they'd be playing all this much the same way.

It's possible to have sympathy for some of the more earnest Liberal ministers and staffers toiling away on a policy agenda that keeps getting buried under the weight of their government's baggage. But even though this latest twist probably has more to do with bureaucratic incompetence than outright duplicity – it's hard to imagine the hyper-cautious Mr. Bentley saying all documents had been released if he didn't really think they had been – the Liberals are pretty much getting what they deserve.

Forget the cliché about the cover-up being worse than the crime. The documentation shows that it's been a miserable scramble after Mr. McGuinty's campaign team appeased the NIMBY crowd in a couple of key ridings (and, yes, the opposition politicians siding with them) by promising to back out of construction contracts. That the government has subsequently been unable to get its ministries and agencies to perform efficiently under pressure has forced the Liberals to keep on answering for those initial, dubious decisions.

But if the government is getting what it deserves, that doesn't mean the province is.

It's unlikely there will be an election before next spring at the earliest, and debatable whether either opposition party would be ready for prime-time if there was. In the meanwhile, with so much that needs to be done to secure Ontario's future, we've got a government that can't get off the defensive about its past.