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THE SALON

 


The Salon is ONW's weekly gathering place where three of Canada's brightest and most respected political strategists Rick Anderson, Jim  Stanford, and Richard Mahoney come together  to analyze national issues affecting Ontario.



 

NEW ONTARIO FINANCIAL OFFICER


As the Legislature opens, will an Ontario financial watchdog fare better than Ottawa's? And Peter Shurman's firing: after Duffy and Wallin, did Tim Hudak have any choice?


Richard Mahoney:

The Ontario government introduced legislation Monday that if implemented will create a new independent financial watchdog tasked with monitoring legislative spending. This new watchdog will provide independent financial information and analysis to MPPs - better equipping them to oversee government legislation and budgets.

In Ottawa, the Parliamentary Budget Officer was brought in in 2006 by the Harper government. It's fair to say that Mr Harper and the Conservatives were less than enthusiastic about the independent critiques that the PBO put in front of Parliament, and Canadians.

But these ideas are helpful in an age of complex financial realities and huge governments. They help our elected politicians cut through the bafflegab and do what they are supposed to do: oversee government spending priorities.


Jim Stanford:

A financial accountability office is a good idea. And if I recall correctly, I believe that the NDP had something to do with helping the government see the wisdom of the proposal.

Kevin Page certainly showed the value of having an intelligent, independent eye cast over the government’s spending projections, economic assumptions, and other fiscal parameters.

Independent is key there. Harper & Co. is trying to turn the clock back on that front now.

On the other hand, the opposition partisans who are currently drooling over the idea that this new financial accountability officer would jump on the government over the gas plants and other scandal fodder, are barking up the wrong tree. That’s not the sort of topic the office should focus on (it’s certainly not what Mr. Page and his office dedicated themselves to).

Rather, the goal is helping to achieve more honesty and transparency in budgets, and the budget-making process. Finance Ministers have routinely been cooking assumptions and forecasts in order to make things look worse than they are, only in time to declare “surprise” victory over the deficit dragon.

Paul Martin really perfected this art of “expectations management” in budgeting (maybe you had a role in that Richard??), but many others (including Dwight Duncan) adroitly followed.

The best thing to hope for from a new provincial office would be more honesty in assessing the situation, and helping Ontarians make informed choices about key fiscal decisions. For starters, they could explain exactly why the Ontario deficit has been so much smaller than the forecasts, ever since the recession started.


Rick Anderson:

I certainly think this office is a good idea, and the more it is conceived of as a parallel source of financial information for the Legislature (parallel, but independent of Finance), the better it is. I liked the idea when PM Harper proposed and implemented it, and I like it in this case even better.

The appointment process and accountability are more clearly Legislature, not government, that's very important....

In the end, Ottawa's first groundbreaking experience with this kind of role went a bit off the rails (not as much as some say). The experience there may be instructive for Ontario's soon-to-be-appointed FAO.

In my opinion, the officeholder was doing largely useful work, but made the mistake of becoming directly part of the political debate himself, rather than informing that debate and letting the elected representatives conduct it....

In effect, he politicized the office, became identified with the Opposition and the Government naturally got its back up. That's all too bad, but not fatal to the concept, and good learnings for Ontario's office.


Richard Mahoney:

Jim is right - this provincial watchdog did come out of the discussions/negotiations between Premier Wynne and the NDP in the spring.

In Ottawa, Mr. Harper didn't like what PBO chief Kevin Page said sometimes, and objected to it.

When they went to replace him, it should have been a parliamentary process, not a government choice. One of the most serious challenges facing democracy in Canada is the effective neutering of our Legislatures.

An independent source of financial and budget information would go a long way to empowering elected members to scrutinize the actions of government. The next step would be to change the political culture to make it acceptable to be more independent from your party's leadership on certain matters. Then we might, just might, have effective legislatures. What Ontario is doing is an important step in this direction.


Jim Stanford:

I will stop picking on Richard now and pile on Rick instead.

Au contraire, it wasn’t Kevin Page who politicized the office. It was the federal government. They tried to block him and discredit him at every turn.

When his facts and figures did not fit the government’s speaking points, they froze his access to necessary information, preventing him from doing his job. He ended up literally going to court to get access to the information necessary to cost out proposed government programs.

Like any other independent expert whose research was inconvenient to the federal Conservatives’ political strategy (including climate scientists, criminologists, military procurement experts, addictions experts, and more), Page was vilified as an ideologue.

To the contrary - he is a national hero! And his forecasts, by and large, have proven accurate.

It is to his credit that he is respected today as a courageous and honest voice – which is more than is usually said about the government these days. And we can only hope that the new Ontario FAO has the same, shall we say, fortitude. Onward and upward! Sep 10 2013, 4:17 PM


Rick Anderson:

As I said, I think the Ottawa PBO did largely useful work, and the fact that it discomfited the government is par for the course. (And the PM and his government are smart enough to know that.) As these offices get established, there will be a certain amount of jockeying between government and Legislature; that too is par for the course when the authorities are inherently competitive....

My earlier point was simply that the FAO, and for that matter Ottawa's new PBO, should probably hope to avoid having Jim's villain/hero labels attached to them.

The way to do that is to do the job independently, and to get the facts out into the Legislature without making the mistake of letting yourself becoming the story.

Richard is quite right about strengthening the legislatures and parliaments across Canada, and these new offices are important additions to our system of governance in that regard. So let's do them right.


HUDAK FIRES SHURMAN


Richard Mahoney:

It was revealed last week that the Conservative finance critic, Thornhill MPP Peter Shurman, billed the maximum $20,719 last year after moving away from his riding in the GTA to Niagara-on-the-Lake.

While Shurman argues he was within the rules, that is the same argument made by Senators Duffy, Wallin and the like.

These expense provisions are in place so that MPPs from outside Toronto can afford to travel to Toronto and stay there when the Legislature is in session. They are not intended to be a "perk" that is used by MPPs to pad their compensation.

Shurman was wrong to claim it.

That said, we learned today that Shurman wanted to run in Niagara On The Lake, but Tim Hudak wouldn't let him do so:

"Peter Shurman Was Discouraged From Running In Riding Where New Home Was"

http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2013/09/10/peter_shurman_was_discouraged_

from_running_in_riding_where_new_home_was.html


Jim Stanford:

Like the federal scandal over Senate expenses, the Shurman affair very seriously damages the Conservative claim that they are prudent, penny-pinching, professional proprietors of the public purse. (Try saying that six times. After a beer.)

The reality is, Conservatives are just as prone to fiscal profligacy as any other party. In fact, more so.

For if you examine the average deficits incurred by federal and provincial governments of any political stripe over the last 20 - years, the largest average deficits were under Conservative governments.

On the other hand, the unseemly way Mr. Shurman was thrown under the bus by Mr. Hudak provides a whole additional reason to worry about this party. Mr. Shurman, whatever the error of this particular decision, is a man of principle who followed the rules (which everyone now agrees must be changed).

Mr. Hudak’s shallow effort to “manage” this problem (on top of his other internal trials and tribulations) by making a sacrifice of Shurman probably damages his leadership more than the issue itself.


Rick Anderson:

That "average deficits" talking point looks like real mystery meat data - it's certainly not true of Ontario. Or Quebec. Or BC. Which are only the three largest provinces.

But never mind. I think the point here is that Mr. Hudak did do the right thing. Perhaps Jim knows of a more seemly way to relieve someone of responsibility under these circumstances, but it seemed pretty seemly to me. Mr Shurman was apparently offered the opportunity to repay the allowance, and declined....

Mr Hudak and the party are well within their rights - and also right - to decide this is not how they wish to be represented, especially vis-a-vis that portfolio. Good for Tim.


Richard Mahoney:

Now hold on a second, Jim.

Before you start carelessly challenging Tim Hudak's leadership, let's think of the alternatives.

If we lose Mr Hudak as leader of the Conservatives, who do we get?

Frank Klees, the honourable member for ORNGE?

Randy Hillier, the honourable member for former scofflaws?

Be gentle, my good man.

What is useful about this is that it does expose the hypocrisy of Mr. Shurman and Mr Hudak.

They have been merciless in their attempts to malign the character and reputations of just about any Liberal, including the Premier, who I think most would agree is an honourable person. Now we see evidence that their own conduct is not up to snuff.

Fair play, I guess.


Jim Stanford:

Here’s a weblink to the study on average size of deficits by political stripe. It goes back to 1980, and was prepared by my friend Toby Sanger in Ottawa.

Fiscal Record of Canadian Political Parties

The Progressive Economics Forum

http://www.progressive-economics.ca/2011/04/29/fiscal-record-of-canadian-political-parties/

I did indeed misspeak the first time I mentioned it Rick: it’s only among FEDERAL governments that the Conservatives have the worst fiscal record. Among BOTH federal and provincial governments, the Liberals have the worst record, and the Conservatives have the second worst. The NDP has the best.

Mr. Hudak learned from a master, his Prime Minister, about how to respond to scandal by sacrificing an underling.

And at any rate, I thought that Niagara-on-the-Lake was just a gated suburb of Burlington anyway. So in that case Mr. Shurman was well within the GTA whether he was at EITHER of his homes! 


Rick Anderson:

Wow. Not much to add to that, other than to ask what the reaction might have been had Mr Hudak chosen to defend Mr. Shurman. That really was not an option, and I'm surprised to see it pretended otherwise here, if that is actually what's being implied.

And it's a bit weird to have Mr. Shurman's $20,000/year issue compared to the Liberal government's $535 million gas scandal, as if they were in the same general vicinity. Politics....



You can follow The Salon's strategists on Twitter:

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About The Salon

Rick Anderson is former senior adviser to Reform Party Opposition leader Preston Manning; Jim Stanford in an economist for Unifor; and Richard Mahoney, former Liberal advisor to Rt. Hon. Paul Martin.
Posted date : September 10, 2013

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