Holding Ontario’s Liberal government to account for spending and expense abuses and stopping the harmonization of the provincial sales tax with the GST will drive the opposition agenda in the fall session of the legislature that starts Monday.
The government was under fire when the legislature adjourned in June over reports eHealth Ontario handed out $16 million in untendered contracts to consultants, some of whom were paid $2,700 a day and still billed taxpayers extra for snacks and beverages.
More details spilled out during the summer about expense abuses at eHealth, the agency set up to create electronic health records after its predecessor spent more than $600 million on the same project and produced little of lasting value.
A similar expense problem rocked the already troubled Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. in the summer, prompting the government to fire the CEO as the entire board of directors resigned. Ousted lottery corporation boss Kelly McDougald launched a wrongful dismissal suit on Friday.
There was another report about untendered contracts at the Municipal Property and Assessment Corp., and the opposition parties said they’ve filed more access to information requests to see if similar problems exist at other agencies, boards and commissions.
“You will see us on Monday continuing to pursue the culture of entitlement that is set in deep in the (Dalton) McGuinty government,” said Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak.
“We have done an extensive freedom of information request (on other agencies) and will continue to do so on a regular basis to shine the light on the extent of the rot of the government.”
The Liberals have become “arrogant” in their second term and seem more concerned with making things easier for friends and insiders than taking care of the needs of ordinary people, said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.
“Under Dalton McGuinty’s watch, we keep seeing scarce public resources being wasted on perks for well-connected insiders while services are being cut in hospitals and special education,” she said.
The opposition parties will also fight to halt McGuinty’s plan to merge the eight per cent provincial sales tax with the five per cent goods and services tax. They say the harmonization would mean a huge tax hike on everyday items and services currently exempt from the provincial tax.
“We are working really hard to mobilize Ontarians against this tax,” said Horwath.
“This is the wrong tax (and) it’s the wrong time, and New Democrats are uniquely in lock step federally and provincially in terms of our opposition to this tax.”
Horwath was taking a shot at Hukak, who admits he has a difference of opinion with his federal Conservative counterparts in Ottawa, who are giving Ontario $4.3 billion to merge the two sales taxes into one 13 per cent levy.
Hudak could find himself fighting the tax on two fronts if a federal election is called, but said any differences with the federal Conservative government are irrelevant to the fact McGuinty is imposing what amounts to a large tax hike on Ontario residents.
“Obviously (federal Finance Minister) Jim (Flaherty) and I have a disagreement on what Dalton is bringing forward,” Hudak said.
“But we’re on the side of Ontario families and small businesses who see this for what it is: a calculated tax grab.”
A government spokesman speaking on background said the Liberals would use the fall session to illustrate that Hudak’s position on the harmonized sales tax is completely opposite to that of most Conservatives and many in the business community.
The government intends to use the fall session to focus on implementing its plan to create jobs and get the economy back on track, and on developing the regulations for the Green Energy Act such as minimum set backs from homes for wind turbines.
“We will continue to focus on the economy and on job creation as well as going ahead with our tax reforms, including the tax reductions,” McGuinty said Friday.
“We will go forward with our Green Energy Act, which will also create jobs, as well as full-day learning (for four and five year olds).”
The Liberals will also face a test outside the legislature this week with a byelection Thursday in the central Toronto riding of St. Paul’s to replace former attorney general Michael Bryant.
The opposition parties have been trying to turn the byelection into a mini-referendum on the harmonized sales tax, but the Liberals have hopes they can hold onto the seat that Bryant represented for the past decade.