Orders of the Day – Financial Accountability OfficerSeptember 11, 2013
Mr. Ernie Hardeman: I’m pleased to rise today to speak to the Financial Accountability Officer Act. I find it disappointing that I’m one of the few MPPs who will get an opportunity to speak to this bill.
This is a significant item: a creation of a Financial Accountability Office. After this government’s out-of-control spending and waste, such as eHealth, million-dollar grants to cricket clubs, Ornge, and the gas plants, I understand the need for financial accountability. But, once again, this government is choosing political expediency over doing the right thing.
Creating a new servant of the Legislature is an historic undertaking. It should be done with careful consideration and full and open debate, and with all members of the Legislature having information they need to make an educated decision.
For those who don’t recall, and for our five new members in the Legislature, I want to take a minute to talk about how we got to this point. Last spring, in an effort to get this budget passed, the Liberal government introduced a time allocation motion which not only limited debate on the budget bill that we were debating at the time; it included a requirement to introduce this bill and limit debate and hearings on the bill, which, at the time, we had not seen. Mr. Speaker, that isn’t fair, and it doesn’t allow members to do the job that the people sent us here to do. The decisions that we make in this Legislature matter. We don’t just take time to speak for the sake of speaking.
This Financial Accountability Office would be on a level with the Auditor General of Ontario, an office created by the Legislature in 1886. It would be equivalent to the Ombudsman of Ontario, which was created through the Ombudsman Act, which received royal assent on July 3, 1975. That act was introduced 13 years after the need for an Ombudsman was raised in the Legislature. It was introduced after 11 private members’ bills to create an Ombudsman and after a commitment in a throne speech.
When this office was proposed, I read the debates from 1975, and it was interesting to see the concerns and proposals put forward by all the members. There was some great debate about what areas should fall under the Ombudsman and how broad or narrow the mandate should be. I found it interesting that the member from Sandwich-Riverside raised the concern that with the creation of a provincial Ombudsman, members wouldn’t have to deal with constituency casework at all. I think we can all attest that that certainly hasn’t been the case.
During the debate, the provincial secretary for justice stated, “Not only would the Ombudsman require the confidence of the members of this House, whom he serves, but he must also have the confidence of the public and the civil service.” If this new legislative office is supposed to have the confidence of the members of the House, whom he serves, and the confidence of the people of Ontario, shouldn’t we have a full, public debate? Shouldn’t all members have the opportunity to speak to the creation of that office?
Reading through the many days of debate on the Ombudsman Act is quite a contrast with what we are being asked to do: vote on this bill only two days after it was introduced and with only two hours of debate-40 minutes for each party. If it passes in a few days, as laid out in the motion last spring, the bill would be pushed through the committee. Amendments to the bill are due the day after the hearings, which is the evening before clause-by-clause.
I’ll admit that requiring amendments to be submitted in advance creates the benefit of allowing members to research the amendments before voting on them. However, it also limits debate and the ability of members to work together. It means that members only have the opportunity to look at amendments and vote “yes” or “no.” There is no ability to make changes to the amendments. There is no ability for members to work together to come up with amendments that everyone could agree to. There is no ability for members to combine ideas from different parties to create amendments that work for the people of Ontario.
I remember that we put forward an amendment on an agricultural bill to allow the minister to create committees to ensure consultation. The government voted it down. The minister’s office explained to my office that they liked the amendment, but they only wanted one committee; if we hadn’t made it plural, the government would have supported it. But because the government forces through these programming motions, there is no ability to make changes to amendments in the committee, not even removing the “s” off “committees.”
In total, the bill to create a new legislative officer will have four hours of debate in the Legislature-only four hours for all 107 members of this Legislature to raise their concerns, put forward proposals to improve the bill and share the concerns of their constituents. From a Premier and a government that are famous for offering conversations, this is shameful.
During the committee hearings on the Ombudsman Act, an NDP member said, “The Ombudsman, again, is a child of this House. He’s not the child or the creation of the Premier of this province, nor in the first instance ought he have to attend on him.” The government and the Premier are treating the Financial Accountability Office as if it belongs to them, not the members of this Legislature and the people they represent.
The people of Ontario are probably asking: If the creation of a Financial Accountability Office is so important, why is it being rushed through? The sad answer is that this is not truly about accountability or a desire of the government to do better. This is part of a backroom deal cooked up by the Liberals and the NDP. This deal was worked out behind closed doors to buy NDP support for the budget.
Ontario is being ruled by a coalition of big-spending parties. To see the impact of that coalition, all you have to do is look at page 208 of the budget and see that spending has actually increased by $3.6 billion next year alone. All you have to do is look at the fact that next year the provincial deficit is forecast to increase to $11.7 billion, even though the government is forecasting revenue increases. Under the Liberal/NDP government, spending continues to increase and Ontario sinks further into debt.
Should we have a Financial Accountability Officer? Looking at the increasing debt and the wasted money on eHealth, gas plants and Ornge, it seems like a good idea. But I’m disappointed that we won’t have more of an opportunity to debate what the role of that Financial Accountability Office will be.
I think we need to have a broader discussion about what else the Financial Accountability Officer is required to do. As the bill reads now, there is no requirement for him to provide a costing on any government proposals unless requested to do so by a member of the Legislature or a committee. However, section 10 says that the Financial Accountability Officer may refuse a request from a member or a legislative committee.
I understand that allowing him to refuse a request from an individual protects his office from being used for political purposes. However, if a committee made up of members from all sides makes the request, I’m not sure that the Financial Accountability Officer, a servant of the Legislature, should be able to refuse that request.
On this side of the House, we have repeatedly raised the concern about government spending and finances, as have the people of Ontario. In fact, on the survey response to my householder last spring, it was one of the number one issues. I want to share a few of the comments I received.
Another from Tillsonburg wrote, “The government must stop spending money it does not have. Everyone in government must be held accountable for their actions. Dalton McGuinty should be charged in court for wasting taxpayers’ dollars.”
A person from Woodstock said, “Quit spending money on things that are not necessary. Set rules and pay down deficit, just like other people do. There is no excuse for this high deficit.” It’s priority number one.
Eliminating the deficit is a priority for the people of Oxford and for the PC caucus. Mr. Speaker, the truth is that neither of the other two parties is prepared to make difficult decisions required to make our province better, get our financial house in order and eliminate the deficit.
Ontario needs to learn from the examples of governments across the world, like Greece, Italy and Spain, who are struggling to balance their books before ever-increasing interest payments on their countries’ enormous debt plunge them into bankruptcy. That’s not a path that Ontario should be on, but if something doesn’t change, that’s where we’re headed.
We believe Ontario can and should do better. That’s a conversation worth having, as is the conversation about how a Financial Accountability Officer could help us get there. It’s too bad that this government, despite their claims to be willing to collaborate, is shutting that conversation down.
Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker, for giving me this opportunity-one of the few of us that is going to get it. I also do look forward to changes being made in committee to make sure that we get a bill that will actually work for the people of Ontario, not just satisfy the needs of the NDP in the province of Ontario.