Ontario's opposition parties called Wednesday for the resignation of Energy Minister George Smitherman, saying he must be held accountable for his role in the expense scandal at eHealth Ontario.
Both Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak and NDP Leader Andrea Horwath were reacting to a long-awaited report from the province's auditor general.
The report castigated the government and the senior management of eHealth for wasting nearly $1 billion in taxpayers' money over the past decade in a failed bid to create an electronic health record system.
The report slammed the government for allowing eHealth to waste millions on unused computer systems and give out millions more in untendered contracts to consultants.
Some of those contracts were doled out when Smitherman was health minister from 2003 to 2008. Smitherman's successor, David Caplan, resigned as health minister Tuesday over the eHealth affair.
Hudak said Wednesday he also expected Smitherman to resign upon the release of the eHealth report.
"The auditor general's report makes it quite clear that many of the biggest abuses of taxpayers' money occurred under the watch of minister George Smitherman," Hudak told reporters. "And George Smitherman has escaped any sanction or any scrutiny by the premier for his role in this affair."
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath also levelled a blast at the deputy premier.
"I can tell you if I was the premier of this province, I wouldn't have Mr. Smitherman in my cabinet nor the current deputy who oversaw all these things either," she told reporters Wednesday afternoon.
Smitherman, who is considering running for Toronto mayor, addressed the issue on Wednesday.
"I haven't any doubt whatsoever that there are lessons that I can learn — that we can all learn — because of the investigation that has occurred," Smitherman told the legislature.
McGuinty accepts responsibility
Earlier Wednesday, Premier Dalton McGuinty said he was accepting responsibility for the mess, and promised to put a stop to the unsupervised, free-spending practices that created the eHealth scandal.
"We have ended the practice that has carried on for decades under governments of all political stripes," McGuinty told reporters at a news conference in Toronto.
"Ultimately," the premier said, "I'll be judged by the people of Ontario," referring to a provincial election that is two years, less a day, away. "We should have known about this."
McGuinty said he welcomes the auditor general's recommendations and "we undertake to implement every one of them."
McGuinty also approved the release of an internal audit of another health agency, Cancer Care Ontario.
The Health Ministry said it made that document public "in our continuing commitment to open and transparent government."
In the legislature, Hudak accused the government of intentionally releasing those documents on the same day as the auditor general's report in order to draw attention away from CCO. He suggested "Liberal friends" may have benefited from deals with CCO.
"Dalton McGuinty now is trying to hide one scandal behind another scandal," the Opposition leader said. "After six years in office, the rot has spread deep and wide in the McGuinty government."
He blamed the wasted money and untendered contracts directly on McGuinty's leadership.
The premier, who tried for months to dodge opposition calls for the head of his health minister, finally accepted David Caplan's resignation on Tuesday evening.
McGuinty also announced a small cabinet shuffle on Wednesday, moving Deb Matthews from her post at community and social services to health. Matthews will be replaced by former cabinet minister Laurel Broten.
Smitherman stays at the energy and infrastructure post.
McGuinty tried in September to pre-empt the scathing criticism in the auditor's report by announcing four new measures aimed at ending the practice of untendered contracts and stopping the expense excesses that have been reported in the media.
Ontario Public Service employees will be issued new, simplified guidelines for travel, meals and hospitality expenses. The government says the new measure "boils 25 pages of guidelines down to two pages."
Employees at the 22 largest boards and agencies will undergo mandatory online expense claim training.
In a move aimed at increasing transparency following the expense scandals at the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation and at eHealth Ontario, the expenses of Ontario Public Service "senior management, cabinet ministers, political staff and senior executives at Ontario's 22 largest agencies will be posted online. This will start no later than April 1, 2010," the province said in a news release.
The province said it is also planning to increase the number of random audits it carries out on the province's agencies, boards and commissions.
"Together, our package of reforms will protect taxpayers and bring an end to untendered contracts for consulting services," McGuinty said in a statement released Wednesday morning.