All rise. Kangaroo court is in session, Ontario’s “Government for the People” presiding.
Like kangaroos, politicians are a peculiar species, given to strutting and kicking. Coverups are second nature as they try to hide their tracks — fiscal, political and personal — to throw rivals off the scent.
But predators, partisans and premiers are always in hot pursuit. Doug Ford created a legislative committee last September to ferret out the truth about “quite possibly the worst political coverup in Ontario’s history.”
The multi-billion-dollar question: What’s the real budget deficit?
The Liberals first predicted a $6.7 billion in their last spring budget, while the auditor general pegged it at $11.7 billion. Not to be outdone, the Tories came to power insisting on a $15 billion figure — since deflated to $12.3 billion when the financial accountability officer gave a second opinion Monday.
Pick a number, give or take a billion.
Finance Minister Vic Fedeli — whose deficit numbers disagree with all others — predicted Ford’s special committee “would get to the bottom of the coverup … and will begin to restore trust in Ontario’s books.”
But a kangaroo court does not engender trust. The Tories’ tribunal is a marsupial and mercurial beast, jumping up and down like the deficit numbers — hippity hop.
It will be remembered for refusing to call the one witness at the centre of the high-stakes accounting dispute that bedevils the government’s books: Cindy Veinot, the former provincial controller also known as the government’s chief accountant.
A non-partisan public servant, Veinot signed off on the Liberal government’s books for two years, concluding they were a fair representation of the province’s finances. During much of that time, she was at loggerheads with the independent auditor general, Bonnie Lysyk, who disputed Veinot’s interpretation of complex accounting statements (Lysyk refused, in turn, to sign an “unqualified” endorsement of the accounts Veinot had attested to).
They battled over a massive $10.7-billion pension surplus: Veinot, backed by outside accounting experts (including those hired by the Tories), argued the money could not be wished away and must be accounted for in some way (any surplus enables the employer and employees to one day lower their contributions to reach equilibrium — not to be confused with illegally “raiding” a fund). The auditor publicly disagreed, even though her office had supported this accounting treatment since 2002.
In a 12-page unsolicited submission seeking to appear before the committee (never made public until revealed by my Toronto Star colleague Robert Benzie), Veinot lays out the logic of her case, and details Lysyk’s embarrassing conduct behind closed doors. (Veinot said Lysyk resorted to personal attacks and threats at one meeting. Lysyk has declined to discuss their relationship.) Yet the Tory majority, which granted Lysyk an audience, has repeatedly rejected attempts by New Democrat MPPs to hear Veinot out.
Unsurprisingly, the Tories are determined to demonize the last Liberal government for a supposed coverup (a criminal allegation which the Tories have pointedly not pursued). It is the kind of conspiracy theory that easily finds an audience, provided you suppress the testimony of a non-partisan public servant like Veinot about what really happened.
Giving voice to Veinot would also interfere with the premier’s preferred narrative that this is a partisan tale of Liberal intrigue, when it turns out to be far more prosaic accounting dispute between a non-partisan government accountant and an independent auditor general. Far better for the Tories to profit from public confusion so they can inflate the deficit — and conflate the stark political choices facing Ontarians.
Ford and Fedeli prefer to overstate the budget shortfall and conjure up a coverup so they can engineer even bigger cutbacks in coming months while pointing to a fiscal crisis. How inconvenient for them that Veinot could not in good conscience sign her name to the dubious deficit numbers Fedeli later put forward as finance minister (“nor did any accountant,” she notes dryly), leading to her resignation as provincial controller in September.
While this kangaroo court tries to sniff out a Liberal conspiracy, the stench of cover-up wafts right under its nose — the wilful and shameful suppression by the Tories of Veinot’s testimony as the province’s chief accountant.
As the independent financial accountability officer noted Monday, the province could benefit from an informed debate on its budget choices. The deficit is rising regardless of any accounting disputes — thanks to declining economic growth, reduced tax revenues, rising interest rates, and higher demand for government programs.
Six months after winning an election, Ford faces a witch’s brew of bad economic news, but he prefers to lay it all at the feet of his predecessor, Kathleen Wynne, casting her as the evil witch. Rather than assuming the mantle of leadership, the Tories are aping marsupials.
Martin Regg Cohn is a columnist based in Toronto covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @reggcohn