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Ontario Education Minister Liz Sandals speaks to the media about the new health and physical education curriculum for Ontario students in February.

Matthew Sherwood/The Globe and Mail

The more you think about the Ontario government's secret $2.5-million payouts to three teachers' unions, the more questions come to mind. The reasoning for the payments, ostensibly made to help cover the unions' negotiating costs in the most recent round of bargaining, is full of holes.

The government claims that a new bargaining system it put in place for teachers caused the talks to go on longer than normal, incurring unexpected costs for the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association and the Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens. If that is the case, let's see an accounting, down to the penny. All those zeroes in a row suggest that no accounting was done; that these were lump payouts with an invented justification.

But even if the justification weren't invented, that itself raises an important question: Why is the government covering the negotiating costs of organizations that exist to negotiate? Unions represent their members in collective bargaining, and they collect mandatory, tax-deductible union dues to do so.

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Furthermore, a provincial government constantly has to negotiate dozens of union contracts. It should be able to implement bargaining systems that allow it to manage the load. If this caused talks to go slowly for teachers' unions, tough luck. Where is the compensation for the government if a teachers' union walks away from the table or uses another method to protract negotiations? Where is the compensation for families who have to find child-care alternatives when teachers go on strike? If compensation for costs were a serious issue, it wouldn't be reserved for unions alone.

So what was this money really for? You can buy the government's justification if you choose. But it's worth remembering that Ontario teachers' unions have, in fact, had some extraordinary political expenses of late.

The OSSTF spent $385,000 during the 2014 provincial election as part of a union campaign against the Progressive Conservatives. The OECTA spent $2.1-million. Both unions backed Working Families, a Liberal-supporting union coalition that through several electoral cycles has run attack ads against the provincial Tories. This was not the first election where the unions spent big to back a side. It probably won't be the last.

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