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It was a rare moment of public exasperation for Kathleen Wynne.
In Monday's Question Period, New Democrat Leader Andrea Horwath repeatedly demanded the Ontario Premier agree to testify a second time before a legislative committee probing the costly cancellations of two gas-fired power plants. As she rose to her feet to respond, the normally diplomatic Ms. Wynne sounded annoyed.
"The questions that [Ms. Horwath] is asking are questions that have been asked over and over and over again, and they have been answered over and over and over again," she said. "If there is a new question, if there is new information that's being sought, I would like to hear that."
Since February, the opposition-dominated committee has questioned scores of witnesses – from top politicians to bureaucrats to political staffers – and forced the release of tens of thousands of pages of internal government documents. The work of Progressive Conservative and New Democrat MPPs has uncovered several instances of political interference on the gas plant file that likely drove cancellation costs much higher than they needed to be, and led to revelations the government may have broken the law by destroying records.
Earlier this month, thanks to the auditor-general, the committee learned the likely final tally for the cancellations could be as high as $1.1-billion.
On Tuesday, Serge Imbrogno, the top public servant in the province's energy department, said the auditor-general's numbers were only estimates. The actual cost could wind up more or less than that figure.
The committee's ultimate purpose is to decide whether the Liberals should be held in contempt of parliament over the matter. So, given the reams of information released over the last eight months, it's fair to ask: why not just make a decision now? What more could the committee possibly need to know?
The most obvious, and cynical, answer is that the opposition parties are dragging the process out until an election, widely expected in the spring. Dropping the bombshell of a contempt charge shortly before a campaign would ensure it receives maximum public attention and, the opposition hopes, stays in voters' minds when they mark their ballots.
Some insiders in both opposition parties confide that even they are bored with the committee. During one particularly dry hearing, an NDPer jokingly referred to the proceedings as a "zombie walk": MPPs mindlessly going through the paces of grilling a low-level Liberal staffer who appeared to have no new information to impart. One Tory, meanwhile, privately professed to being tired of the seemingly endless meetings, which happen twice every week.
On the record, of course, the parties insist there is still valuable information to be gleaned.
"There are still parts of the story that are unclear," PC MPP Vic Fedeli, one of the committee's most prominent members, maintained Monday. "Who knew what when?"
Several times over the last eight months, it appeared the investigation was petering out, until a new revelation breathed fresh life into it. Last June, for instance, just as committee hearings had slowed, privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian uncovered evidence former premier Dalton McGuinty's staffers illegally had their emails purged. Ms. Cavoukian's report, which followed up on information first discovered by the committee, set off a round of heated meetings, including a combative questioning of Mr. McGuinty.
Over time, MPPs have come to realize the committee's power. It has the right to demand any government documents and, from time to time, those papers contain politically sensitive information that has shed light on the scandal. One email exchange uncovered by the committee, for example, showed Mr. McGuinty's staff ordering an ostensibly arm's-length government agency to offer a richer deal to the company building one of the cancelled plants. Another tranche showed the Liberals discussing how to distract journalists from the gas-plant scandal with a fake story about Mr. McGuinty mulling a bid for the federal Liberal leadership.
Opposition MPPs have reason to hope they will find other such nuggets in the mass of documents still to be released.
But if the committee wants to find those nuggets, it has to keep digging – and asking the same questions over and over and over again.
Adrian Morrow reports on the Ontario legislature.