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                          Is Greg Sorbara Right About The Gas Plant "Mythologies?" 

 

By Randall White

Last week a CBC interviewer asked the Queen’s Park veteran Greg Sorbara about the “big surprises and reveals” in his new book, The Battlefield of Ontario Politics: An Autobiography.

Sorbara immediately pointed to a chapter on “the issues that surrounded the cancellation of two natural gas plants, one in Oakville and one in Mississauga.”

As he explained, his book “tells a very different story from the one the public heard.” It deals with the facts, not "mythologies.”

Mr. Sorbara is a former Ontario Liberal finance minister. He represented the suburbs north of Toronto as an MPP for more than 20 years. He served as President of the Ontario Liberal Party, and campaign chair for three elections.

Critics say the Liberal government cancelled the Oakville and Mississauga gas plants to help win seats in the 2011 provincial election. They charge that this act of shameful partisanship would finally cost hard-pressed taxpayers more than $1 billion.

Someone like Greg Sorbara is bound to defend the government’s actions. 

But while Mr. Sorbara is also a loyal Liberal, he has a mind of his own. He remained an MPP until the summer of 2012, but chose not to sit in cabinet after the 2007 election. 

In his new book he does not shrink from criticizing Liberal colleagues. His deconstruction of what he calls the gas plant "mythologies" deserves a serious hearing.

The story begins with the 2003 election, and the new Liberal government’s promise to reduce reliance on coal. Plans were laid for 21 new gas-fired electrical generating stations across the province. 

The location of these facilities was a largely technical matter, left in the hands of the Ontario Power Authority (OPA). But the provincial cabinet could always cancel projects, for reasons of broader public interest.

In September 2009 the OPA had awarded a contract to build a gas-fired generating station in the Greater Toronto Area town of Oakville. Community opposition was almost immediate, and intense.

Over the next year, according to Mr. Sorbara, the “people of Oakville made an increasingly persuasive case that the plant was far too close to residential areas and schools.” 

They warned that if the Ontario cabinet did not act, they would pursue the cancellation legally - all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada if need be. 

In October 2010 - Mr. Sorbara stresses that was a full year before the 2011 election - Dalton McGuinty’s cabinet cancelled the Oakville plant. 

The case of the gas-fired generating station in Mississauga, just east of Oakville, was somewhat different. Here the contract awarded by the OPA dated back to 2005.   

“Unlike Oakville ... construction was well underway on the Mississauga plant” when community pressure to cancel it heated up, he writes.

What's more, Mississauga Mayor Hazel McCallion, who had earlier supported the plant, changed her mind.

By the middle of the 2011 election campaign, Sorbara says, it was clear that highly active Mississauga community groups "had identified real issues as to the suitability of the site, the mayor and her council opposed it, and both opposition parties had committed to close the site should they be elected.”

On September 24, 2011, with just two weeks to go until election day, the Liberals "gave in to the political pressure from all sides.” Construction of the Mississauga plant was stopped.

Neither the Oakville nor Mississauga gas plant cancellations could have become such major political embarrassments without the rising estimates of cancellation costs that followed the 2011 election, says Mr. Sorbara.

He politely chastises Premier Wynne for apologizing so impressively about what happened, and strengthening “the misconception that the plants were cancelled for purely partisan reasons at a cost of $1 billion.” 

He also believes it was a mistake for the McGuinty government to release the OPA's early estimates of the cancellation costs. There were too many unknowns at this stage for them to be realistic, he argues.

Finally, Mr. Sorbara casts doubt on the subsequent estimate of an ultimate cost of $1.1 billion. He says it is still too early for a complete calculation, but he would "bet most of the family farm" that the real costs will be less than a billion dollars.

“The truth about the gas plants is that the McGuinty administration cancelled Oakville in 2010 and Mississauga in 2011 because in each case the siting of the plant was inconsistent with emerging standards for industrial installations within urban areas,” he writes.

These views may not convince critics who are still trying to get mileage from the issue.

Yet if the people of Ontario really believed the most virulent critics, how could Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals have won a majority government on June 12, 2014? Isn’t that how we assume democracy works in our kind of society? 

Instead, doesn't the myth that scandals and corruption are the only interesting things about politics and politicians nowadays just increase popular suspicion about government?

It certainly can't help but prompt more and more voters to stay away on election day, even if in this case it did not defeat the government itself. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About Randall White

Randall White is a former senior policy advisor with the Ontario Ministry of Finance, and a former economist with the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing. He is the author of Ontario 1610-1985: A Political and Economic History and Ontario Since 1985. He writes frequently about Ontario politics.
Posted date : November 11, 2014

View all of Randall White's columns
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