Perhaps emboldened by weekend chants of “Lock her up!” the premier convened his caucus first thing Monday, and summoned the media to make a melodramatic announcement:
Doug Ford told Ontarians to “follow the money.” He boasted of a forensic “line-by-line audit” that would prove incriminating. And he claimed the numbers tell a damning story of Liberal “corruption” and enrichment.
Invoking his majority muscle, Ford announced a special “select” committee to “compel” evidence in a legislative witch hunt, lest Liberals “walk away from this.”
Beware the Orwellian word play.
A premier who threatens his predecessors is once again degrading our democratic discourse. Like his unprecedented and unhinged attacks on our “unelected” judiciary, Ford’s latest threats to pursue his predecessors may be business as usual in America, but is entirely foreign to Canada.
We import those sinister overtones at our peril. A Progressive Conservative government that once promised an optimistic vision is now peddling a vengeful outlook.
It begins with wild claims from Finance Minister Vic Fedeli that he has uncovered a “coverup” of unimagined scale, with a deficit $8 billion higher than in the Liberals’ pre-election budget.
But the outside report he ordered up, and relied upon for those claims, said no such thing. For all the overheated allegations that the last government “cooked the books,” the undisputed truth is that its pre-election budget was an open book, fully vetted by the province’s auditor general (even if she disagreed with the bottom line Liberal analysis).
Now, that “select” committee — dominated by a Tory majority, including token New Democrats, but with not a single Liberal MPP at the table — is on the warpath. With a straight face, Ford describes the accounting dispute as “the biggest government scandal in a generation.” (Has he forgotten the Walkerton tainted water disaster, which left seven dead and hundreds seriously ill?)
Listen to Ford’s inflammatory, defamatory language: “If you lie on your taxes … there are consequences….. A lot of Liberals got rich under Kathleen Wynne.”
Yet more implications of criminality and venality: “If you tried to pull this kind of coverup in the private sector, the (Ontario Securities Commission) would come calling. The police would come calling … We are not going to let Kathleen Wynne and her cronies walk away from their $15-billion scandal.”
And finally, what did you know, and when did you know it: “Who authorized the coverup?”
It works as a Watergate narrative. But as Fedeli later acknowledged, no one is calling in the OSC, let alone the Ontario Provincial Police, because police and securities investigators — not to mention professional auditors — know the difference between overheated rhetoric and a smoking gun.
As do the Ford cabinet ministers who served in the PC government of Ernie Eves, whom another provincial auditor accused of hiding and understating a pre-election deficit of $5.6 billion in 2003. Will Ford now haul Eves and his guilty ministers in front of a firing squad at dawn?
As for that supposedly damning forensic audit, it was no such thing. Peter Bethlenfalvy, the minister who ordered it up, sheepishly admitted to reporters later that it was produced by private sector “consultants” at EY Canada — not qualified auditors in the firm’s audit department. It was “not a forensic audit, not a line by line review,” he acknowledged.
Awkwardly for the Tories, the quickie study noted that spending increases within the Ontario public service were virtually zero during the Liberal years. What has risen, significantly, is spending on health care and education — precisely what Ford promised not to cut on the campaign trail.
The study was produced in a frenzied six weeks. Compare that time frame to the exhaustive, exhausting, 11-month study of government operations delivered to the McGuinty Liberals by a former TD Bank economist in 2012: it identified major cost savings, most of which were implemented, along with a punishing pay freeze in the public service that helped balance the budget.
No matter the numbers, the script has been written. Day after day, hour after hour, the Tories will tell Ontarians they’ve inherited a veritable hellhole of iniquity and inequity. The provincial treasury was plundered while Liberals enriched themselves, and so they shall be flogged and burned at the stake.
Once the premier gets his pound of flesh and buck-a-beer is here, all will be well.
“Help is on its way,” Ford pledged in the home stretch of the election campaign.
“A new day has dawned,” he promised in the aftermath.
Behold the “new era of prosperity and economic growth the likes of which this province has never seen before.”
Follow the numbers, yes. But watch the word play.
Martin Regg Cohn is a columnist based in Toronto covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @reggcohn