Can Wynne's Liberals move on from gas plant fallout?
Premier likely to face frequent reminders about Oakville price tag in months ahead
"There were decisions made on the relocation of the [Oakville power] plant that should have been made differently."
But with the newly estimated price tag on the closure of the plant set at $675 million and coming from no less than Ontario’s auditor general, will Premier Kathleen Wynne’s comment cut it with voters likely to be heading to the polls in the spring?
Wynne has spent a lot of her time as premier putting out the fires of the Dalton McGuinty government and quietly trying to put some distance between the past, her present and her attempt at a future.
But as the Opposition Conservatives and New Democrats play connect-the-dots with the Liberal record of "disrespecting taxpayers’ money," Wynne’s effort to remain premier becomes more and more difficult.
As if a new "political" mantra at Queen’s Park, PC Leader Tim Hudak and NDP Leader Andrea Horwath rhyme off the list: Ornge Air Ambulance, eHealth Ontario, the suspect girders of Windsor’s Herb Gray Expressway, questionable expenses and bonuses for executives of the 2015 Pan Am Games and the $500,000 grant to Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment to attract the 2016 NBA All-Star game.
All of that taxpayers’ money and all decisions made by the governing Liberals that the opposition parties will bring up over and over again between now and the election campaign.
The PCs and New Democrats will throw all this and more at Wynne hoping that some of it sticks. But it’s the gas plant issue that may produce the most pain for the Liberals.
There is no doubt that with the gas plants, we are talking about a huge amount of money. But what really hurts Wynne and her minority government is Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk’s contention that on the Oakville gas plant the millions need not have been spent.
In Lysyk’s view, the McGuinty government had another option: to allow the project to die its own death because of the widespread local opposition, thus avoiding the payout to the company building the plant.
But, the auditor general — in her first report and appearance before a throng of Queen’s Park reporters — deftly sidestepped questions about the "politics" of the Oakville decision.
However, in decoding her careful responses, it seems clear that she believes the $675 million should not have been spent and that ratepayers and taxpayers are the ones who will pay for the decision — one way or another — for the next 20 years.
The decision to pay off the company feeds directly into the opposition’s view that the Oakville and Mississauga cancellations were part of a so-called "seat saver plan" by the Liberals who panicked that five of their seats were slipping away.
As it turned out the Liberals, including Finance Minister Charles Sousa, were re-elected, though Dalton McGuinty missed out on his coveted third majority government.
McGuinty eventually departed and left to Wynne with what many Liberals admit was a "mess."
So, while the opposition must work to keep the issues alive, there are many challenges for Wynne.
She must convince voters that her apologies and oft-stated upset over the gas-plant spending and other decisions is genuine and not some campaign slogan for the side of her bus, or billboard or, election commercial.
Beyond that, she must now also work to, as Liberal insiders like to say, "change the channel" on these issues.
To do that, she has to create her vision of Ontario, which she’s so far failed to do and also define herself as premier.
To allow the Conservatives and New Democrats to do both may see a repeat of the 1990 provincial election when voters, who were then unhappy with the Liberals and Tories, turned to Bob Rae and the NDP.
Think it can’t happen again? Many Liberals privately will tell you to think again.
Robert Fisher is a long-time Queen’s Park observer and political specialist. You can hear him on CBC Radio’s Here and Now each weekday.