Editor's note: This article originally appeared on The Trillium, a Village Media website devoted exclusively to covering provincial politics at Queen’s Park.
Critics of the Ford government got hundreds of pages of ammunition in a massive report released by Ontario’s auditor general Wednesday morning.
Acting auditor general Nick Stavropoulos’s annual report contains a dozen value-for-money audits, many of which back up long-standing criticisms of the government on key issues.
These include its controversial decision to relocate the Ontario Science Centre, its management of the staffing crisis in health care, its stewardship of the environment, and partisanship in taxpayer-funded government advertising.
Stavropoulos, government ministers and opposition leaders are scheduled to speak to the media about the audits at Queen's Park later in the day.
Paving paradise at the Ontario Science Centre
One audit validates a key criticism of the government’s decision to move the Ontario Science Centre to Ontario Place: its relocation is being used to justify a taxpayer-funded parking lot for a private spa on the waterfront.
The proposed underground parking lot at Ontario Place was needed to meet terms of the 95-year Therme lease, Ontario’s auditor general found in his 2023 annual reports.
Therme’s lease, which hasn’t been publicized, is for 75 years with an option to extend for another 20 years, the auditor general found.
The lease requires the province to provide a certain number of parking spaces for the waterpark and spa from 2028 to 2030 or face a financial penalty.
The parking garage has been controversial because the government’s 2019 call for development at Ontario Place said taxpayers would only be on the hook for around $200 million in site servicing with no additional costs.
The Therme lease, however, requires the province to pay for additional parking beyond what’s already available.
In early 2023, the Ministry of Infrastructure suggested linking the garage with the science centre’s move to Ontario Place to “dispel public (and) stakeholder concerns relating to cost and impact on the environment.”
The garage could cost over $300 million, according to a “high-level preliminary” estimate obtained by the ministry.
The Ford government, however, softened its position on the garage after the auditor general’s reports were finalized. The Tories agreed to explore other parking options at Exhibition Place to serve Ontario Place as part of the new deal with Toronto.
In a trio of reports, the auditor general documented the deterioration of Ontario’s health-care system caused by the cascading effects of staffing shortages.
The report finds Bill 124, which limited annual wage increases for many public workers, including nurses, to one per cent for three years, was a contributing factor to the staffing crisis — a primary concern of the government’s critics.
Another factor identified by the AG is the proliferation of for-profit staffing agencies, which critics charge the government has failed to control.
The AG detailed how the impact of the staffing flight from health care is felt across the system, centring on overcrowded — or closed — emergency departments.
Patients are waiting longer to be seen by doctors in emergency departments and waiting longer for in-patient beds — and that’s when emergency departments are open. While unplanned ED closures were very rare before 2019-20, the auditor tracked over 200 of them by June 2023, by which point the province had not yet made a comprehensive plan to prevent them.
Staffing shortages are particularly acute in the north, where hospitals have to rely more on agency nurses, paying about three times the cost of staff nurses, including profit margins for the companies, in addition to travel costs. The overreliance on agency staff was primarily caused, according to one northern hospital, due to a mass exodus of nurses because of the pandemic and Bill 124.
The crunch is also felt in long-term care, where at least a quarter of all homes failed to consistently reach the province’s vaunted targets for direct-care hours in 2021-22 and 2022-23.
Environmental oversight, democratic input lacking
Stavropoulos found the Ford government is playing fast and loose with the Environmental Bill of Rights, which ostensibly enshrines Ontarians’ rights to provide feedback on laws that affect the environment.
Among other examples, he pointed to the “sweeping” and now-reversed Greenbelt and municipal plan legislation, writing that the government “made key changes quickly and without adequate public consultation. These changes affected conservation authorities, heritage protection, municipal parkland and infrastructure, wetlands, regional planning and planning appeal rights.”
Stavropoulos’ report also found little oversight of aggregate extraction — the sand, gravel and stone dug or blasted out of pits and quarries and used in nearly all construction projects. Ministry inspectors found less than half of inspected sites satisfactory between 2018–2022, with operators failing to submit reports, pay annual fees or keep to their extraction limits. Three companies blew past their annual extraction limit by over 1,000 per cent but the province didn’t pursue penalties, the AG found.
Despite the low compliance, Ontario levied a total of $1,230 in fines between 2018–2022 — a fraction of the more than $300,000 in unpaid fees (which the province does not charge interest on). It’s cheaper to pay the fine ($300) for failing to pay annual fees than it is to pay those fees ($394 minimum).
And only a fraction of sites are inspected in the first place. During the Ford government’s time in office, aggregate site inspection rates decreased by almost two-thirds, from 1,322 inspections in 2018 to 479 in 2022. Some of that decrease is due to the pandemic, but the trend started pre-COVID and continued after stay-at-home orders expired, Stavropoulos wrote. One major reason for the drop: there are just 34 inspectors for the entire province and nearly half of them have been on the job for under a year, Stavropoulos found. Even aggregate companies complained to the AG that inspectors’ inexperience “hurts the image of the entire industry.”
The auditor general’s office is also responsible for reviewing and approving the government’s advertising spending. It again expressed concerns with what it saw as overly partisan advertising by the Ford government — something the office critiqued the Liberals for while they were in power, and that Ford’s Progressive Conservatives promised to crack down on in their rise to power.
The PCs have now abandoned that promise, planning on “maintaining the status quo,” according to the government’s response in the auditor’s report.
The Ford government’s two highest-cost advertising campaigns “would not have passed” the auditor’s review under previous, stricter government ad-spending laws, the report said. These ad campaigns were focused on promoting the government’s health-care and education policies. Of the $28.86 million in advertising spending that the auditor general had the authority to examine — which, under current law, excludes many digital ad buys — about 80 per cent was spent on these two campaigns alone.
“Our office concluded that the primary objectives of these ads and/or information on their respective websites was to foster a positive impression of the government,” the auditor general wrote in his report.
These two campaigns, however, complied with “the narrow definition of ‘partisan’” under current government advertising laws. Under former premier Kathleen Wynne, the Liberals changed these laws to loosen the definition of “partisan.” Before then, the auditor’s office used its discretion to determine what crossed the line, and the PCs had promised to restore the previous level of oversight.
When the Wynne government gave the auditor authority over digital ads, some forms of advertising weren't included. As a result, $4.86-million worth of digital ads — 14 per cent of all government advertising spending — weren’t scrutinized by the auditor general’s office.
In total, the provincial government spent $33.72 million on advertising in the last fiscal year. Twice as much taxpayer dollars were spent in each of the past two years, which is attributed to increased advertising during the pandemic for campaigns to promote things like health guidance and COVID-19 vaccination.
The amount the government spent on advertising in 2022-23 is a few million dollars lower than it spent in 2019-20, which included the first few weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, and about twice as much as in 2018-19, which marked an all-time low for the government since the auditor’s office was given oversight of the provincial advertising spending in 2005. That was also the Ford PCs' first full year in power.
Travel and tourism stuck in the past
The auditor general’s report also examined the tourism and travel sectors. Stavropoulos found that funding delays and the tourism ministry’s lack of an “effective long-term strategic plan” for the sector are limiting economic growth.
His report said events such as art, food and music festivals had been cancelled because the ministry “did not always approve support in a timely way,” resulting in lost opportunities for local economies.
Citing an analysis from Destination Ontario analysis, Stavropoulos’ report also said the province could see more of an economic boost if some advertising dollars were reallocated from marketing to Ontarians to those living south of the border.
Stavropoulos also said travel industry oversight could use a “comprehensive review.” In particular, he said the Travel Industry Council of Ontario, which regulates travel agents and wholesalers, has a similar structure to the ‘90s when people booked travel in-person or over the phone. Despite travel bookings moving online, “consumers are only protected by TICO when they purchase travel from those with a physical location in Ontario.”
Meanwhile, Toronto and Ottawa possibly lost out on a more than $50-million boost to their economies since 2018 because the Metro Toronto Convention Centre (MTCC) and the Ottawa Convention Centre (OCC) were too focused on profits, Stavropoulos’ report stated.
The government-operated convention centres “set their bid price too high in efforts to achieve greater profitability” for a total of 19 events, the report stated. These two centres have also seen a combined 50-per-cent drop in bookings compared to before the pandemic, with some of the contributing factors including hotel room shortages and limited flights.
Drive 'til you qualify
Yet another report delved into the long-standing practice of seeking out an easier location to take a driving test.
New drivers from Ontario’s big cities are flocking to small-town test centres to take their driver’s tests and have higher collision rates than their peers who were tested on urban roads, MTO data shows.
Some 42 per cent of drivers who took their road tests in the Orangeville test centre were from Brampton, compared with only 2 per cent who were actually from Orangeville, the auditor found.
In a 15-month period starting in January of 2022, over 1,000 new drivers from the GTA travelled all the way to Hawkesbury in the lower Ottawa Valley to take their driver’s tests.
Rural test centres “in many cases have less complex road test routes and higher pass rates,” the report said.
“These novice drivers were involved in more collisions when compared to novice drivers who took their road tests at the DriveTest Centre closest to where they lived. Despite noting this trend, the Ministry has not analyzed why this is happening, its impact on road safety or whether controls should be put in place to encourage novice drivers to take road tests in the areas where they live, work or study, and will likely be doing most of their driving.”
More to come.