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Drafting an alternative hydro plan

With the Liberals and the NDP laying out their marquee pocket book policy of reining in hydro costs, all eyes are focusing on what the front-runner Tories might do to reduce the sizeable costs.  However, despite repeated questions, the PC Leader Patrick Brown seems content to wait it out.

I have to admit, this hydro-palooza of policy talk has got me energized! So in the absence of an official PC policy on hydro, readers will be stuck with some version of the Rob Leone plan.

Here are my coal’s notes on what a conservative energy policy might look like in 2018.

First, we’re paying astronomically more because of the policy decisions of the Ontario Liberals.  The Tories must aggressively make many of the points Bryne Purchase outlined in his recent QP Briefing article.  The bulk of the $50 billion in new energy generation that the government has spent has been caused by Liberal policies.  Rates in Ontario were stable until the Green Energy Act started escalating all kinds of costs from generation (feed-in-tariff program), to transmission (all this micro-generation was scattered all over the place), and time-of-use pricing didn’t shift nearly enough people to use electricity during off-peak hours thereby forcing people to pay more.  There’s more, but you get the drift. Make sure the Liberals don’t shift the blame.

Second, we need to restore some economic principles back into the electricity sector.  Hydro is in this odd place where we have an oversupply of energy, yet costs continue to rise, when the opposite should happen.  Demand for electricity has dampened over the past 10 years, and we are still paying more, when the opposite should happen.  Energy policies need to get back to market principles.

Third, if the green energy contracts are the problem, do something about the contracts.  Here the Tories must channel a bit of Trump.  The Wynne Liberals are just bad negotiators.  This government can’t negotiate its way out of anything without costing taxpayers billions.  Reason enough to get rid of them, and if the Tories are smart, this could emerge as a dominate narrative for them in 2018.  Don’t sign any more contracts, and plan to do something with the existing ones.

Fourth, a PC government could explore the creation of new diversified generation companies.  The idea here is to let contract holders convert their contracts into shares of a generation company and make payments to shareholders in the form of dividends.  With diversification, the shareholders would have more steady revenue.  Wind blows most when the sun doesn’t shine (please don’t read a pun into that) and when the sun is blazing, wind is often still.  Peaking plants are needed when there are sudden weather shifts and such but otherwise stay dormant.  The reality is that we still pay when these generators aren’t pumping out electricity.  Creating companies that combine wind, solar, and peaking plants would be a way to end the costly policy of paying producers for no energy production and selling surplus energy to the US at a severe discount.  And, if you need more generation in the future, a series of these new companies could bid for the right to generate allowing Ontario to choose the best price (and maybe even the greenest mix).

Fifth, since Trump is offering a window of trade renegotiation, perhaps it’s high time we pressure the federal government to create a free tariff zone with countries that have clean energy grids.  The fact is that many Ontario businesses are suffering due to high energy costs, and this could be a way of taking their concerns to heart and fighting for them.  Products imported from ‘dirty grid’ countries are obviously going to be cheaper, so imposing a carbon tariff (doesn’t that sound better than a carbon tax?) would give made-in-Ontario products a fairer shake.

By the time the next election rolls around, all the easy stuff will be done. It’s time to be innovative and forward thinking. Energy policy could use a hefty dose of common sense.

This article appeared in Queen’s Park Briefing.  Visit QPBriefing.com to subscribe to this publication and stay on top of all things related to Ontario government and politics!

Ontario’s Art of the Deal

Open up the flood gates! It’s time to play let’s make a deal.  Last fall, Premier Wynne released her mandate letters to the newly reconfigured cabinet and among the noticeable changes in the new directives were the absence of the words ‘net-zero’ from the negotiating parameters of the government and its employees.

The phrase ‘net-zero’ came into the lexicon of Ontario budgeting to suggest that if the government were to negotiate deals with its employees, any extra money in compensation would have to come at the expense of some other spending within the ministry.  In other words, the ministry budgets were not going to increase to account for increased costs to collective bargaining.

For many public employees, this meant only very modest increases.  For senior managers and administrators, it meant a freeze.  And for a select few – ahem, the province’s doctors – there was a roll back on fees, which is just a polite way of cutting compensation.

But this, friends, is the lead up to an election year, and the purse strings must undoubtedly be loosened. Now, as details emerge that at least one teachers’ federation has negotiated a 4-per-cent raise over two years in their pre-election top up, one must seriously call into question whether the budget will indeed balance itself. It is difficult to envision a path to balance that does not address public sector compensation.

We may end up calling it another stretch goal, which is the Ontario government’s version of alternative facts.  Move over, Kellyanne Conway; we have better wordsmiths here.

Balance shmalance.  Far more important than the province’s fiscal position, which isn’t great according to the long range projections posted by the government, is what a deal means for the government.

With both the NDP and the PCs courting public sector employees, the Liberals have little choice but to make friends now.  It’s a signal to public sector employees that the government is ready to negotiate with all of them to make them happy and more likely to support the Wynne Liberals in 2018.

Well, maybe not all of them.  Doctors and college administrators aren’t feeling the love, but hey, they are one percenters, right?  It isn’t like you can see doctors and college administrators stomping on the stump deriding the government.  They will all likely take what they can get now because the cupboard is bare.  Any new government always starts off by saying things are worse than they first thought.  Sign up and shut up.  It’s the new M. O.  It’s also the Ontario Liberals’ version of the art of the deal.

We have seen this before.  When the government is in a hole, they pander to the special interests that help get them elected and appease dissent by opening up the public purse.  In the last election, businesses were upset about hydro costs, so the government puts a couple billion up in corporate welfare up so they can’t criticize it if they want the money.  PSWs were upset at their deplorable working conditions, so the Liberals promised them a $4 an hour raise, which probably told their patients how great it is to finally be recognized – more bang for the buck.  I wonder how many seniors’ homes the Liberals actually lost.  Whether it all works out after the fact doesn’t really matter.  They need to get over the hump first.

All of these groups of voters are carefully selected and strategies formed to micro-target them with tailor-made messages and promises.  It’s the art of a deal, and Ontario Liberals drive a hard bargain.

The goal, of course, is to appease dissent if not to outright garner support.  The deal is sealed when you make your option more palatable than the others.  The goal is to get Ontarians to think ‘he or she is terrible, and things are not so bad for me personally with the Liberals.’ This requires a massive investment in negative advertising, to which the Liberals do better than most.  Don’t be fooled by them telling you otherwise!

Some have suggested that the Liberals will no longer benefit from the legions of third-party advertising that they had invested in.  Fear not, Ontarians – the Liberals have figured this out too.  You will have a reprieve on endless negative radio and TV ads from third party sources. But, guess what? Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and Youtube don’t cost much money, and, if done well, they are more effective in micro-targeting their coalition of voters.  Be prepared to be bombarded by digital messaging, mostly negative of course.  It’s the other necessary element in sealing the deal on Election Day.

You see, people foolishly count the Ontario Liberals out.  They have been down this road before.  In both 2011 and 2014, they came into the election wildly unpopular only to emerge victorious.  Most have chalked this to the terrible campaigns run by the opposition without giving due credit to the Liberals for engineering their success.  Regardless, the Liberal campaign wheels are in motion.  We will soon see if history will repeat itself once again.

This article appeared in Queen’s Park Briefing.  Visit QPBriefing.com to subscribe to this publication and stay on top of all things related to Ontario government and politics!

#FakeNews is why we have democratic government

The presence of ‘fake news’ is nothing new.  The fact that the world is in a tizzy over President Donald Trump’s latest foray in the constant battle for the truth is quite remarkable.  It’s like we’re trying to give him credit for inventing something that is as old as the human need for power and dominance.

One need not look further than former President Obama’s farewell address and President Trump’s inaugural address to see the difference.  President Obama painted a picture of a thriving America using facts that speak to that prowess – record job creation, a stronger social safety net, and diplomatic breakthroughs in Cuba and Iran.  And, for the millions of Americans who have seen their prosperity grow, there was much to be proud of that legacy.

Contrast Obama’s version of the truth with President Trump’s speech last week, where the new President talked about torn cities, rampant drug, crime, and gangs, porous borders, and foreign countries poaching jobs, the difference couldn’t be more stark. President Trump’s version of America was bleak.

Unsurprisingly, the main street media, who by the way have a viewership and readership that is decidedly more educated and wealthy – that is, the sort of people that have prospered under Obama’s America – were quite harsh. But to the millions of Americans who have not prospered in America, the speech couldn’t ring truer.

Both presidents spoke the ‘truth’ with facts and anecdotes that reinforce their narrative, but it is precisely that narrative that is so hotly in dispute.  An election was called, and the divisions of versions of America bore out in the electorate.  To the ‘other side’, the going narrative is contestable garbage, and it’s that narrative that infiltrates political discord and informs political debate.  In democracies, we allow opposition to contest those ideas.  We have a free press to keep a watchful eye.  We set up accountability and transparency mechanisms to try and provide unbiased information to inform that debate.  We encourage freedom of association to protect the right of citizens to gather, discuss, and protest if need be.

Who is right largely depends on the information as each individual sees it. President Trump’s attack on the media based on the number of people who attended the inauguration wasn’t destined to appeal to consumers of the media, but it did serve the purpose of reaffirming to the American people that the elites will not soon start to view his presidency favourably.  Not at all.  The President’s Twitter will keep going, and it should.

Back home, the missives exchanged by Conservative leadership candidate Kevin O’Leary and the Wynne government are an extension of the democratic feud.  O’Leary got his name out there, politically speaking, by issuing a series of ‘open letters’ to political opponents, including Premier Kathleen Wynne.  In those letters, O’Leary blasts Wynne for a variety of what he undoubtedly sees as measures of incompetence.  On hydro, on deficits, on everything, O’Leary paints a bleak picture of Ontario. Judging by public polling figures, that narrative speaks to millions of Ontarians.

However, the new strategic direction of the Wynne government has been issuing rebuttals to O’Leary via ‘open letters’ on social media.  I’m not sure O’Leary is a follower or a friend of Wynne and her cabinet, mind you, but that’s not the point.  Those messages were directed at Wynne’s supporters.  In these rebuttals, Wynne and her cabinet ministers focus on the narrative that the government is doing quite fine.  Ontarians are working.  The economy is growing.  Finances are under control. Hydro rates rose to deal with competing problems and are now the focus of decline. And so on.

Is O’Leary wrong or is Wynne? The answer is that it depends on how you see things.  If you are an Ontarian who struggles to pay the bills and eat, your Ontario is in disarray.  Conversely, if you’re educated, seeing the onset of cheap (or free) tuition, and like reducing your carbon footprint, then hey, you’ve got nothing to complain about – other than ‘fake news’ O’Leary perhaps.

In O’Leary, the Wynne government clearly sees a vehicle to get their positive narrative out, which it can’t seem to do without a vocal provincial opponent and a federal prime minister whom the Premier happens to really support.  The end game is to frame the dialogue that will inform voters’ attitudes in the year leading up to the next provincial election.

The point is that ‘fake news’ has always been with us.  The people who have power will use selective information to keep wielding it. Some even call it propaganda, especially when information appears to be distorted. The opponents will use alternative information (which is now seen to be a gaffe!?!?!?) to try and seize power.   Most voters actually don’t know what is true.  In fact, I spend a great deal of time to try and filter past the clouded mess.  Frankly, I tabled an historic contempt motion in the legislature because I felt we weren’t being told the truth, and in many respects, that did indeed became a real problem for the government.

We must be careful about everything we hear. For example, Minister Glenn Thibeault said Boston has 60% higher hydro than Ontario.  However, statistics from Hydro Quebec, which looks at average rates, taxes, delivery charges, and the whole picture, puts that increase at about half of that.

Facts are funny, aren’t they? Used to counter my favoured narrative, they can also be ‘fake.’

Time to end the mental health policy stigma

Finding the money to make mental health care a priority has been a long-standing problem in Ontario and throughout Canada.  Despite increased awareness to reduce the stigma, such as this month’s corporate initiative driven by Bell Let’s Talk, the realities of financing health care delivery make it difficult to turn awareness into concrete public action.

The release of the latest Financial Accountability Office’s report paints a bleak picture for changing this course.  It clearly states that in order for the province to meet its commitments to balancing the budget, $2.8 billion in cuts to the health care budget need to be made.  Thus, in order to fund mental health or any other new priority, money would have to come at the expense of another part of the already strained health budget.

The FAO report makes clear that when Ontario’s health minister and finance minister are arguing for more federal cash, what they’re really saying is not only a plea for help to fund health priorities but also help to balance the Ontario provincial budget.  Anything less than the 6% increase they had been used to since 2004 is simply insufficient.

The Trudeau government, for their part, have basically maintained the Harper government’s line on health spending increases, which was to hold it at about 3% annual increase.  However, in addition, the Trudeau government has also earmarked money for home care and children’s mental health.

At first blush, the federal offer contained a $5 billion commitment aimed at reducing wait times for children’s mental health, much of which would have gone to reducing wait times for psychotherapy that Children’s Mental Health Ontario says is up to 1.5 years in some parts of the province.  However, it was a $5 billion commitment over 10 years, meaning the annual increase was going to be $500 million across Canada, with Ontario qualifying for approximately one third of that amount.  That’s still a fair chunk of change, but hardly transformative. Moreover, without a pre-holiday federal-provincial health accord, the federal government took that offer off the table.

What is most concerning about the whole ordeal is the symbolism.  Think about it.  The federal government is essentially telling the province ‘accept our insufficient 3% offer or we won’t give you new mental health money.’ In other words, the mental health of our children is being used as a pawn in this trifecta of growing health care costs, an Ontario budget balancing act, and a heavy-handed federal government that’s trying to assert control in provincial jurisdiction. The new money for mental health will only arrive if the provinces accept a lower increase to health transfer payments that starve other health programs.

To put that in perspective, almost 1000 Ontarians die of suicide each year.  Suicide remains among the leading causes of death among children and adolescents, and they are preventable.  In the first half of 2016, five young people committed suicide in the town of Woodstock.  Local officials suggested that many more attempts were made.  So dire was the situation that the Canadian Mental Health Association declared the situation in Woodstock to be a crisis.

No matter.  The feds will invest in mental health, but only if the province accepts even less money in the form of transfers.  It is an evil false dichotomy.  The provinces don’t have to agree to the lower increase since the federal government can unilaterally allocate whatever money it wants.  And yet, in failing to agree to something that isn’t necessary, the federal government revoked its offer of cash for children’s mental health.  The proposal for new mental health dollars is a carrot without a stick.

When the E. Coli contamination happened in Walkerton, seven people had died and hundreds of others fell ill.  The policy response was swift and sustained.  This is not so with mental health – quite the opposite.

So on Bell Let’s Talk day, our politicians will be tweeting and texting about ending the stigma.  And yet, there would be no more powerful message to ending the stigma than for the government to treat mental health like most other aspects of health care.  As this latest federal-provincial faux squabble shows, we are nowhere close to ending the policy stigma.

This article appeared in Queen’s Park Briefing.  Visit QPBriefing.com to subscribe to this publication and stay on top of all things related to Ontario government and politics!

Auditor-General Meets Post Truth Era

The Auditor-General of Ontario released her report on the province’s public accounts and it is a bloody big deal.  This fall, the government was late releasing its Consolidated Financial Statements because there was an ongoing difference of opinion between the Treasury Board Secretariat and the auditor regarding the treatment of pension assets.

The A-G kicks off her report by stating the following: “For the first time in the 23 years since the Province adopted Canadian generally accepted accounting standards for governments, the government received a qualified audit opinion on the Province’s consolidated financial statements.”  I thought to myself, ‘time to pop some popcorn, because this is going to be entertaining.’

But rather than be entertained, I am frightened.  As an academic who specializes in accountability and transparency, I have long held the view that audits should be used for improvements to public services rather than exacting a political toll on government.  Audits, in my view, ought to be written and used in ways that are seen as not political.  The language used ought to be judiciously selected and that audits should stick to the facts.

There will be no doubt that the government will view this audit as crossing that line, and they will attempt to discredit the auditor as acting beyond her role.  The report clearly states that this is a top-of-mind interpretation of the public spat: “The actions taken by the Government in releasing the consolidated financial statements late and without the audit opinion of the Auditor General, while also publicly disagreeing with an accounting issue before providing the Auditor General with information needed for her to issue an audit opinion, could be perceived by some as an attempt to undermine the role of the Office of the Auditor General.” As far as foreshadowing goes, it can’t get more ominous.

This blatant attempt to release the statements without an audit opinion is serious. The report states: “Going forward, our Office will need to approach the audit of the consolidated financial statements with increased professional skepticism and will assess the need for expanded audit procedures.” This issue isn’t going away.

The lack of audit opinion means that the public cannot have confidence in the Consolidated Financial Statements.  While the government used the auditor’s opinion on recording assets in this fiscal year, the issue is that the government did not restate its fiscal position for the previous year, which means that you cannot compare apples to apples in the data, which is important when you make claims of meeting or beating targets.

In addition, there are major issues in accounting practices that need to be carefully watched.  The Auditor bases her assessment using the PSAB standard, but she questions why the government legislated certain accounting practices that were different than PSAB.

The report states: “We continue to caution that the use of legislated accounting treatments by the government on future transactions, or the introduction of further legislated accounting treatments, could increase the risk that the future financial results of the province may not be fairly stated.”  The problem that arises is that the government has given itself a legislative ability to pass a regulation detailing how an asset can be recorded.  Via regulation, if a government wishes to record an asset/liability that is worth several billion, as having no value, it has the ability to do so, which are contrary to PSAB principles used by governments across Canada.  In other words, legislating its own accounting standards allows the government to possibly cook the numbers.

More evidence on inconsistent accounting standards can be found in the government’s treatment of hydro assets.  The government included financial statements for Hydro One and Ontario Power Generation using the American GAAP standard instead of the internationally accepted PSAB.  The report states: ”We believe that the differences between the two standards could lead to material accounting differences, potentially as early as the 2016/17 fiscal year.” Wait a second… that’s this year!

The government may take exception to some of the language used in the audit as being overtly political, the auditor isn’t saying what appears to be the underlying theme of this year’s report: namely, that the government is shirking on its accounting responsibility (discussed in the management vs. auditor in Chapter 2 Section 3.2 of the report) but doesn’t go on to say the reason she thinks this might be the case.  We are left to speculate that the government is doing so for politically motivated reasons, and there is ample support to draw that conclusion.

In the world of auditing, using consistent standards ensures that comparisons can be made and benchmarks established.  By switching accounting standards, the government can basically use whatever number best suits its narrative.  Worse still, it has given itself unfettered legislative ability to write off assets and liabilities through regulation instead of accounting standards.  This is what post-truth looks like.

This is happening far more than it should.  Take a look at the following chart (see attached) related to the deficit projections.  If you read footnote 2, it’s a confusing mess where the government is picking and choosing numbers so that it can make the claim that it has beaten its fiscal forecast for 7 straight years.  It’s a comms job and a con job.  If the government is not going to beat its target, it just sets up a new one so their election ads can say they beat their projections for almost a decade.

The political implications of this are obvious.  In 2004, the government passed the Fiscal Transparency and Accountability Act, which means that in advance of an election, the Auditor is asked to look over the books and state whether the assumptions in the fiscal plan are sound and accurate.  I have written about the flaws in that document elsewhere (https://www.robleone.com/is-ontario-ignoring-its-own-fiscal-transparency-law/), but it is important to note that the Auditor is also fixated on loopholes in the legislation (see page 96 of the report).  The Ministry of Finance Response to Recommendation 10 was that they are not changing the law.

What voters are left with is a squabble they very well won’t understand.  The government in using different accounting standards so it can claim its following sound accounting principles which will be contrasted by an apolitical auditor saying the government needs to use the same one everyone else uses.  Voters will be too confused so they’ll move on to the next shiny object such as, say, the invasion of the so-cons. Oh, that sounds so much more interesting, doesn’t it?

Bait. Switch. Win. It’s the obvious Liberal playbook.  #WhatPostTruthIs

This article appeared in Queen’s Park Briefing.  Visit QPBriefing.com to subscribe to this publication and stay on top of all things related to Ontario government and politics!

Is Ontario Ignoring Its Own Fiscal Transparency Law?

Recently, I tweeted the following prediction: That the government will table a ‘balanced budget’ only for public accounts to report back and say that there was an actual deficit.  The Liberal spin trust responded by saying something like ‘after the Tories left a $4.7 billion deficit, the Liberals introduced the Fiscal Transparency and Accountability Act so the auditor looks at the books before an election.’  Fair enough. I expected such a response.

It’s a response we’ve heard before.  Tories hate the response because of the sheer lie it tells, which is that the $4.7 billion is not a Tory deficit but a Liberal one.  I’m not going to rehash what is right or wrong here.  The ship has sailed on that one.

However, what remains is the bill itself. Has anybody looked at this thing?

S. 3 Ontario’s fiscal policy must seek to maintain a prudent ratio of provincial debt to Ontario’s gross domestic product.  

Right, prudent. What does this mean? Hopefully, it doesn’t mean a 10 consecutive year increase in debt-to-GDP ratio. Oops, that’s what we have. Hopefully, it doesn’t mean a 50% growth in debt-to-GDP. Oops, that’s what we have.  Looks like the government is missing out on most measures of prudent here.

S. 4. (1) For each fiscal year, the Executive Council shall plan for a balanced budget unless, as a result of extraordinary circumstances, the Executive Council determines that it is consistent with prudent fiscal policy for the Province to have a deficit for a fiscal year.

So, yeah. Oops, forgot about this one too, I guess.  The budget hasn’t been balanced in more than 10 years.  In e-mails, government bureaucrats mocked the ‘balanced budgets’ that the Liberals said they passed and said ‘they weren’t real.’ So much for missed opportunities.

S. 5. (3) If the Executive Council plans for a deficit for a fiscal year, the Executive Council shall also develop a recovery plan for achieving a balanced budget in the future and the recovery plan must specify the manner in which and the period within which the balanced budget will be achieved.

Enter, Don Drummond.  Who?  Don Drummond. What did he do again? Oh yes – that report!  That plan to get us back on track! Whatever happened to that report? Collecting dust probably.

S. 9. (1) Within two years after each provincial election, the Minister shall release a long-range assessment of Ontario’s fiscal environment.

And, as you know, when I was at Queen’s Park, we complained that the mid and long range estimates were incomplete and not visible.  Bureaucrats advised the minister that not releasing the forecasts wouldn’t be acceptable in the post-Drummond era.  No matter.  The minister directed his budget writers to not follow that advice and a budget was tabled without the forecasts.  This wasn’t an oops.

S. 10. (1) In such circumstances as may be prescribed by regulation, the Ministry of Finance shall release a pre-election report about Ontario’s finances and shall do so before the deadline established by regulation.

Here comes the fun stuff.  The pre-election report is all subject to regulation.  The regulation for the next election doesn’t seem to be posted yet.  I checked. Yet, given all the stuff ignored in this bill already, who is to say we’ll actually have a decent regulation at all.

11. (1) If the Minister does not release information required by this Act on or before the specified deadline, the Minister shall release a statement on or before that deadline in which the Minister explains why the required information was not so released.

Again, I’m not sure we had a satisfactory answer as to why the mid-/long-range estimates were missing.  Not sure there was total compliance with this law.  Never mind that, section 11 starts by saying “If the Minister does not release…” which leaves open the possibility that the Minister may choose to ignore.  Open possibility here.

S. 14. No action or other proceeding may be brought in respect of a requirement of this Act. 

Ahhhhhhhhhhhh… I was waiting for this.  Immunity.  No punishment for non-compliance.

As you can see, enough wiggle room exists here.  The Tories are always mocked when they advocate for balanced budget legislation.  They said we repealed it when the budget couldn’t be balanced.  Well at least they had the gumption to go through the legislature.  This is worse.  Pass a bill, potentially ignore it, and if you do, nothing can be done.  Transparency… riiiiiiight!

Prediction stands. Prove me wrong!

Election Act bribery charges a symptom of larger problem

The engineer of the 2014 Kathleen Wynne majority government, the same person tasked with figuring out how to do it again, is now facing bribery charges under the Ontario Election Act. Pat Sorbara, along with Sudbury Liberal operative, Gerry Lougheed, were at the epicentre of the earthquake that shook Queen’s Park last week.

The Ontario Provincial Police announced last Tuesday they had charged Sorbara with two counts of bribery, and Lougheed with one count, after “a complex and unprecedented investigation” into the candidate nomination contest for the February, 2015, Sudbury byelection.

It is alleged, according to information reportedly sworn by the Ontario Provincial Police, that Lougheed and Sorbara dangled a job in front of Andrew Olivier, who ran and lost for the Liberals in the 2014 Ontario election, to not run. Sorbara faces an additional accusation of bribing then-federal New Democrat MP Glenn Thibeault to become a candidate. The allegations have not been proved in court.

But Thibeault would ultimately be appointed the Liberal candidate and win the byelection for the Grits. He was promoted to energy minister in June’s cabinet shuffle.

After she was charged last week, Sorbara stepped down from her roles as the Ontario Liberal Party’s CEO and campaign director, where she had been preparing for the 2018 election. Both she and Lougheed deny any wrongdoing, while Thibeault denies he was offered anything to run for the Liberals at all.

The initial reaction to the Sudbury byelection scandal from the chattering classes was that this is politics as usual – all parties do it after all. Then, the Premier’s documentary came out in October, 2015, and it appeared like the Sudbury issue was clearly weighing on her. The official line was that the Liberals were trying to help the young Olivier stay involved in the political process, but the problem is what it looks like.

Wynne’s non-verbal cues showed, to me, a Premier that looked like she knew they could have potentially gone too far. It appears that, perhaps the intent wasn’t so much to keep Olivier involved as it was to prevent a vote-split if Olivier decided to run as an independent. This would make the situation different than other inner-party squabbles. Olivier came close enough in the general election to potentially be damaging to Liberal hopes in Sudbury.

But this is what a tired and out-of-touch government looks like. It looks like a government that appears to think it can get away with skirting rules.

And then there’s the gas plants scandal. As noted in documents and by the auditor general, political staffers were involved in talks about cancelling the Oakville plant. There were also assurances TransCanada would be kept “whole” after a politically-motivated decision was made to kibosh a government-issued contract. This, along with the Sudbury byelection brouhaha, are examples of a party that may have become too comfortable in its position of government.

One can’t help but equate what is happening to the Wynne Liberals with what happened in Ottawa before the last federal election. The whole Mike Duffy expense scandal came about because the rules that were written were so inadequate that Senators could exploit the perks afforded to them. And while the law technically wasn’t broken, the spirit of the regulations was, tarnishing the reputation of other senators in the Chamber. Nigel Wright, former prime minister Stephen Harper‘s chief of staff, thought he could fix it and tried to make the problem go away by cutting a personal $90,000 cheque to the treasury. Everything might have been OK had everyone kept quiet. But of course that didn’t happen, and so, right through a federal election, the issue played out in the court of law and in the court of public opinion.

Just like in Ottawa, the downfall of the government at Queen’s Park may indeed have its face. Lougheed and Sorbara could be the new Duffy and Wright. With the characters now cast, a steady stream of questions will continue to be put to the Premier and ignored, which will only further erode the public’s trust in this embattled premier. It is still just shy of two years from an election, but time may indeed be running out for Wynne’s Liberals.

This article appeared in Queen’s Park Briefing.  Visit QPBriefing.com to subscribe to this publication and stay on top of all things related to Ontario government and politics!