Rivers gives provincial auditor general a close look; she doesn't get a very good grade.

Rivers 100x100Ray Rivers

December 11, 2014



The provincial Auditor General (AG) is an essential part of a system of good government. Being independent and reporting directly to the Legislative Assembly, the auditor “conducts value-for-money and financial audits of the provincial government”. The 2014 report targeted a number of areas including infrastructure, child care and energy (smart meters).

If Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk wants to attack public policies instead of doing what she is being paid for - to evaluate programs - she should join a political party.The office of the AG is not inexpensive, chewing up over $15 million dollars annually and employing about a dozen people each year. This year’s report weighed in at 600 pages, more than twice the size of the New Testament. And though the language is simpler than what we find in the Bible, there is so much redundancy and superfluous description interspersed among all the pretty graphics, that it is might also be as good a remedy for insomnia as some find in the pews of their church.

I have been involved in audit processes at both federal and provincial levels over the years. For the most part the auditors work closely with government officials, and in many cases simply regurgitate what they were told by officials – making for few surprises for the officials. That seems to be the case when this year’s report examined the processes for building infrastructure; 74 building projects were considered.

The AG noted that the “tangible costs (such as construction, financing, legal services, engineering services and project management services) were estimated to be nearly $8 billion higher than… if the projects were contracted out and managed by the public sector.” That waste of money seems logical given the complications and extra rewards required for private sector involvement.

But Infrastructure Ontario officials justified this additional expense arguing that “the risks of having the projects not being delivered on time and on budget were about five times higher if the public sector directly managed these projects.” They estimated this risk at $18.6 billion making the, so-called, alternate financing partnership a no-brainer for them. But are they really serious – five times?

Me thinks that something is rotten in the state of the Ontario public service. Not much wonder the recent billion-dollar gas plant relocation fiasco was handled so casually. Why isn’t the management at Infrastructure Ontario saying WTF, or better still doing something to change that statistic (five times the risk)?

Smart Meters Work

The technology was going to let the consumer make choices.

Following the Harris/Eves government screw-up of the energy file (de-regulation and privatization), politicians jumped onto the smart meter bandwagon as a panacea for spiraling electricity costs. The AG attacks the decision-making process and much of her criticism centres on a cost-benefit feasibility study performed, after-the-fact. Imaginary numbers (guesstimates) lie at the heart of her criticism.

Smart meter

They were going to change the way we used electricity.

In addition, she fairly critiques the lack of oversight on implementation, accountability and general management, particularly for the Hydro One empire. That smart meters may be an essential piece of infrastructure in a transition towards more efficient energy delivery and providing greater control of one’s hydro bill to the consumer is not really something the AG considers, nor perhaps should.

And sometimes the AG isn’t very insightful or even helpful, as when she concluded that there was a “need to provide ministry and agency staff with training to help them do their work more consistently and effectively” for the Child Care, Parole Board, Nominee, and Residential Services for People with Development Disabilities programs. Isn’t that just good counsel for all employees, regardless of program?

MaRs project Toronto PPP

The provincial government used some very creative accounting to approve a loan to complete a building in downtown Toronto that was far from fully rented.

The AG also followed up on whether the government had paid attention to previous recommendations and whether the culprits had cleaned up their acts as a result. Of the 77 recommendations, requiring 170 actions, from the 2012 report, she noted that 81% of had been “either fully implemented or are in the process.”

Impressed with this statistic, one might question whether the AG shouldn’t be brought in earlier – to help program managers’ better design and implement their responsibilities. But that would, of course, shift her role to being both the prosecution and the defence, and immerse her office in a huge conflict of interest.

As the report notes, the mandate for the AG is fairly broad but it is limited to the activities within government ministries and agencies. So it is at some risk to her office that the AG ventures into criticizing general public policy, as she does when slamming provincial deficit and debt levels. “Ultimately, the question of how much debt the province should carry and the strategies the government could use to pay it down is one of government policy,” she notes.

So why does she even mention it? It is not like this provincial government is unaware that we have an emerging debt problem in Ontario. Since her interference is not for informative purposes, what is she doing? The good office of the AG compromises its credibility and authority once it decides to shed its independence and go political, as she has clearly done.

If Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk wants to attack public policies instead of doing what she is being paid for – to evaluate programs – she should join a political party. In fact there is an opening right now for leader of the Progressive Conservatives.

Rivers-direct-into-camera1-173x300Ray Rivers writes weekly on both federal and provincial politics, applying his more than 25 years as a federal bureaucrat to his thinking. Rivers was a candidate for provincial office in Burlington where he ran against Cam Jackson in 1995, the year Mike Harris and the Common Sense Revolution swept the province.

Background links:

AG on Debt   AG on Private Partnerships

AG on Smart Meters    AG Report

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5 comments to Rivers gives provincial auditor general a close look; she doesn’t get a very good grade.

  • Jack Fernihough

    Ray is obviously a Good Liberal. Many of the articles are informative and newsy about Burlington. Then there are those straight out of the pages of Granma.

  • BC

    That’s it Ray, keep your head in the sand and march lock step with the rest of the Liberals at Queen’s Park. Such a good comrade. It’s been a decade of Liberal rule in Ontario and you still blame Mike Harris…..give me a break!

  • D.Duck

    “she should join a political party. In fact there is an opening right now for leader of the Progressive Conservatives.”

    Ray did you disclose which political party you indorse. From your opinion pieces, one can easily infer that you are a staunch supporter of the Liberal Party (nothing wrong with that unless you are criticizing said Liberal party…..then watch out). Perhaps the Burlington Gazette should be a more neutral unbiased journalistic mouthpiece for the people of Burlington.

    By the way, did not the Liberal Party of Ontario select Ms. Lysyk to the office of the AG?? This individual has decades of experience in accounting and auditing as well as a 10yr stint with Manitoba Hydro.

  • JQ Public

    So there is something inherently wrong with an Auditor General (ie. a trained financial auditor) noticing that our debt and deficit need some major thought, because they are out of control, and having the temerity to ask the government to address this? Please spare us your fallback position that she’s moving into government policy and therefore into dangerous waters. Give us a break Ray. Citizens do have some measure of intelligence.

  • Anthony Pullin

    The Auditor General’s report costs $15 million per year. Servicing the the Ontario debt costs nearly $1 billion per MONTH. Worth mentioning by the AG I would say.
    “An emerging debt problem” you say? Every man, woman and child now owes $23,000.00 as their portion of it. But it is none of the AG’s business?
    I think it is very, very foolish to be so blindly devoted to any Party to the extent that you can never hold them to account.