Elected on the strength of not being Kathleen Wynne – a ham sandwich, even without cheese or mustard, would have cleared that bar – Doug Ford appears to be on a fast track to proving his critics right.
A case in point is Bill 57, the Orwellian Restoring Trust, Transparency and Accountability Act – governments of all stripes like to treat the public as boobs in naming legislation in direct contrast to their intent – which sees Ford take aim at independent oversight at Queen’s Park.
Part of the omnibus bill – another tactic popular with governments looking to railroad unpopular legislation – eliminates the provinces’ Child Advocate, the Environmental Commissioner, the French Language Services Commissioner and the Conflict of Interest Commissioner. It also makes it possible for the government to suspend all other independent officers of the legislature such as the Auditor General, the Integrity Commissioner, the Chief Electoral Officer and the Freedom of Information Officer.
Auditors general, budget officers and integrity commissioners have been of particular concern of governments that would rather not have anyone looking into their acts of corruption, graft, inefficiencies and incompetence – that’s not the kind of transparency and accountability they want (i.e. more than none).
In Ford’s case, some of the cuts play to the base – that sounds familiar – while eliminating hurdles to another of his early-and-often corrupting tendencies: appointing friends and loyalists to plum positions, with or without appropriate qualifications. Given that he’s done so in the face of expert opinion and even political optics, it’s no wonder he’s looking to remove oversight functions.
Being short on both experience and a serious grasp of the job didn’t stop Ford from charging in, particularly on the electricity file.
A major source of Liberal failures, hydro was a talking point during the election. Once in office, Ford set about tinkering under the hood, leading with the board and CEO of Hydro One. The moves have yet to provide any savings, nor a much-needed solution to long-term rate reductions. But Ford has attempted to settle some political scores – see the firing of Alykhan Velshi, a former chief of staff to Patrick Brown, from Ontario Power Generation – on the backs of taxpayers, heedless of the impact.
And speaking of OPG, the utility recently sold off the site of a decommissioned generating site in Toronto under a cloud of secrecy and complaints the price was well below market value.
Originally a coal-fired plant that was converted to burn oil, the R.L. Hearn Generating Station hasn’t been in use since 1983, but its situated by the lake in the city’s Port Lands area. Though in need of environmental remediation given its former use, the site is worth a fair bit of money because of its location. NDP critic Peter Tabuns, for instance, points to nearby properties having sold for hundreds of millions of dollars.
“I want a fully independent appraisal of this property done and released publicly before a single dollar is allowed to change hands,” he said in a statement, noting that OPG’s sole shareholder is the provincial government.
One of the key buyers, it turns out, is a big developer whose family donated $11,000 to Ford’s campaign and $30,000.00 to his brother’s mayoralty campaign.
In that vein, the PCs have also moved to reduce constraints on campaign finance rules, opening the door to pay-for-access fundraisers and third-party interference in provincial elections.
The omnibus bill also eliminates rent controls on new buildings, cancels the Pay Transparency Act aimed at pay equity and weakens the protection of some government agencies and assets.
Not surprisingly, this bill has drawn the particular ire of public-sector unions, which have staked an anti-Ford position from the start.
Fred Hahn, president of CUPE Ontario, for instance, maintains Bill 57 could prove a danger to our very democracy.
“And the cherry on the top of this mess of corporate pandering is that the bill brings big corporate money back into political fundraising through cash-for-access fundraisers and direct corporate donations,” says Hahn in a release. “The Ford Tories may be calling this the ‘Restoring Trust, Transparency and Accountability Act,’ but what it does is damage our democracy, demolish government accountability and open the doors wide for even greater corporate influence over government decisions. The people will pay while corporations benefit – period.”
Partisan stance aside, he’s not wrong in assessing the pitfalls, nor in recognizing the hypocrisy in the bill’s name. It’s as if the government assumes most people are either too stupid or too preoccupied to delve any deeper … or even care. Ford may be right. Keeping the public occupied with mindless partisanship, petty bickering and, above all, pop-culture distractions works out just fine for those who are happy with the status quo: the real power elites who have no interest in changing a good thing.
Too many of us seem much too eager to think well of those in authority, despite repeated examples of malfeasance and incompetence.
Partisans turn a blind eye to all of the negatives, whether that’s in support of a particular party or a pet project. The rest of us look on apathetically, often resigned to the fact graft and corruption abound. A few note that incompetence is commonplace, from municipal bureaucracies through to the boardrooms of multinationals.
The only way that’s going to change is through the political will to push for true accountability. The politicians won’t do it, however, unless we force them to: they’re happy with a self-serving system that allows unfettered access to the cookie jar for themselves and their financial backers.
Quite simply, politicians have no interest in tightening up the rules to eliminate self-interest as a motivation for decision making among elected officials and bureaucrats. They’ll talk a good game, especially in opposition, but really want to keep their options open.
History has shown that the rules, and the spoils, benefit the few, while the costs go to the rest of us.
Truly open government would not only reveal the backroom deals, lobbying and patronage that are the mainstay of government, it would do away with much of it. Again, that’s not even in Ford’s worst nightmares when he talks about transparency and accountability, though never delivering on even the mildest versions of open government.
That bare minimum would involve revealing where the money goes, revealing the most egregious waste – the kind of stuff the public loves to rant about – and, just perhaps, letting some light shine on who benefits.