Taking a rare step, Ontario’s legislative watchdogs —including the auditor-general and ombudsman — have joined forces to raise alarm bells over the Wynne government’s sell-off of Hydro One, the Star has learned.
Privatizing a 60 per cent stake in the Crown utility will “significantly reduce” their oversight powers, the independent officers say in a joint statement to be released Thursday.
“We take seriously our legislated authority to hold government and provincial agencies and corporations accountable on behalf of the legislature and all Ontarians,” they wrote in a letter obtained by the Star. (See full text below.)
The sale, part of the budget bill now before MPPs, would quickly halt oversight on behalf of taxpayers, warn the offices of Auditor-General Bonnie Lysyk, Ombudsman Andre Marin, the information and privacy commissioner, financial accountability officer, integrity commissioner and French language services comissioner.
The officers are all hired by the legislature, by all-party committees of MPPs, and report to the legislature independent of government.
In their letter, they “encourage the government to reconsider its decision to remove independent officer oversight of Hydro One and its subsidiaries, given the government will control Hydro One assets well into the future.”
Premier Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal administration says it must sell the stake in Hydro One to raise $9 billion to pay down debt and help build new public transit, starting with an initial public offering of 15 per cent of the company.
Opposition parties have branded the move a “fire sale” that will reduce the government’s steady stream of income from the Crown utility.
The independent officers warn the sale means the end of investigations such as Marin’s high-profile probe into outrageous Hydro One billings to customers, Lysyk’s audits of performance, scrutiny of public access to company records through the information and privacy commissioner, oversight of expense claims by the integrity commissioner “to ensure prudent spending of taxpayer dollars,” and concerns the company would not be subject to the French Language Services Act.
Lysyk has already mounted a campaign against Wynne’s plan to change the Government Advertising Act, with measures she says would “gut” the 2004 legislation aimed at stopping partisan advertising at taxpayer expense.
The government maintains it hopes to change the law with amendments in the budget bill to “clarify” what is partisan instead of leaving a subjective decision to the auditor’s office.
Lysyk has warned the changes would turn her office into a “rubber stamp” and open the floodgates to partisan government ads.
The Liberals passed the law 12 years ago in the wake of ads that featured previous Progressive Conservative premier Mike Harris touting his government’s achievements instead of providing informational ads to citizens about government programs.
Privately, many Liberals complain the law went too far and tied their hands.
Full text of the letter obtained by the Star:
Ontario’s Independent Officers of the Legislative Assembly are calling on the provincial government to reverse plans in the Budget Bill that they believe will significantly reduce important oversight powers.
The Officers report to the Assembly, not to the government of the day, and provide independent, expert reports and analysis of government operations and service delivery. We take seriously our legislated authority to hold government and provincial agencies and corporations accountable on behalf of the Legislature and all Ontarians.
The Officers believe that the government’s proposals in Bill 91, the Building Ontario Up Act (Budget Measures) 2015, will reduce the scope of the reviews that can be conducted on behalf of the people of the province. They encourage the government to reconsider its decision to remove Independent Officer oversight of Hydro One and its subsidiaries, given that the government will control Hydro One assets well into the future.
The Officers are concerned that while the government intends to eventually hold 40 per cent of Hydro One over the long term, their ability to assess its value and quality of service, among other matters, would be eliminated, either upon the Budget Measures receiving Royal Assent or within six months of that date. Passage of the bill would result in the following:
• The Auditor General would not be able to conduct performance audits of Hydro One and its subsidiaries.
• The Ombudsman would have no ability to investigate public complaints about Hydro One and its subsidiaries.
• The Information and Privacy Commissioner would no longer be able to oversee the right of access to records held by Hydro One.
• The Financial Accountability Officer would not be able to examine the impact of planned Hydro One operations on consumers or the economy.
• Lobbyists would no longer be required to report whether they are lobbying Hydro One and its subsidiaries.
• The Integrity Commissioner would no longer review Hydro One expense claims to ensure prudent spending of taxpayer dollars.
• The French Language Services Commissioner remains concerned that Hydro One and its subsidiaries would never be subject to the French Language Services Act
The government would take the revenue from its Hydro One stake and reflect it in its consolidated revenues, the Auditor General said, and yet Ontarians would receive no independent information on the value or operations of that holding.
The work of Ontario’s Officers depends first and foremost on their independence from government. This principle is sacrosanct because there is value to independence, to the public trust in government.