Jim McDonell – This week at Queen’s Park

TORONTO – As if the energy file couldn’t get any more attention at Queen’s Park, this week’s report by the Auditor-General, as well as other media revelations, threw more doubt over the transparency and management of the electricity system in Ontario. The Independent Electricity System Operator runs programs under which it, and by extension the Ontario ratepayer cover private gas generators’ start-up and idling costs to make sure a ready supply of generation capacity is available if needed. The Ontario Energy Board has issued 30 reports over a 15-year timeframe, warning the government that the program was rife for abuse, and the Auditor-General confirmed the Board’s worst fears. Over the course of years, operators used ratepayer-funded expense accounts to cover outlandish purchases ranging from car washes to raccoon traps, parkas, and scuba gear. The overall figure for ineligible expenses surpasses $260 million and was charged at a time when vulnerable Ontarians faced electricity disconnections in the dead of winter.

The shameless gaming of the system, and the government’s failure to oversee it are only half the story. The government convened a working group to review the system and design ways so that it could not be exploited. Members of this committee included executives from companies that had both been under investigation and fined for abusing the system, who were asked to resign only after the media started asking questions.

The Auditor-General made several more findings in other Ministries, most notably in the Ministry of Infrastructure. For instance, $50 million in contracts was awarded to bidders who were not originally on the list of approved vendors, but were manually added by external consultants in the bidding process. This is a very upsetting revelation. Obtaining Vendor of Record status with the Ontario government involves intense scrutiny and vetting and is a badge of honour for many businesses. If this process for establishing trust and guarantees can be bypassed, taxpayers lose as a result. Elsewhere in the Ministry of Infrastructure, $19 million is used every year to maintain 812 empty buildings, some of them vacant for more than eight years. Disposing of surplus real estate falls to the Ministry of Infrastructure and I have rarely encountered a process more unresponsive, obscure, or unpredictable than getting rid of buildings and land the government does not need. Our abandoned Travel Information Centres are but one example of the need for better management within Infrastructure Ontario and a more transparent process for identifying surplus property and taking it, and its maintenance, off of the public`s back.

In the House, I delivered my remarks on home warranty reforms and ticket sales contained in Bill 166. After the government`s blanket rejection of well-reasoned amendments, the potential pitfalls of implementing this legislation were too great to warrant continued support by the Official Opposition. We also passed prompt payment legislation in Bill 142. Contractors deserve to be paid when they have done their work, and it was time the government recognized that principle.