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The taxpayers’ defender that got away

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By: Graham Lane
Published by the Winnipeg Sun on Friday, September 29, 2017

Ontario’s taxpayers have a staunch defender in Bonnie Lysk. Ontario’s Auditor General should have been Manitoba’s, but she ruffled Manitoba’s then-politicians who preferred a weaker provincial auditor. Lysk, once Manitoba’s Deputy Auditor General, was expected to take over as top auditor when then-AG Jon Singleton retired. But when Singleton was not renewed for a second term, the appointment went to Carol Bellringer, a former AG and (then) Hydro board member.

Singleton’s audit (assisted by Lysk) of Crocus Investments did not please the government. The audit criticized questionable actions by Crocus and poor oversight from the-then NDP government. As for Bellringer, she resigned before her first term was up.

Unlike Manitoba’s current Auditor General who, also lacking a mandate to criticize government policies, seldom digs into the results, Ms. Lysk focuses on the outcomes of policies and digs deep. For example, her blasting of the Ontario government over its mismanagement of their electricity file and other finance and accounting practices.

In 2015, Lysk conducted a review of Ontario’s electricity debacle, concluding Ontario ratepayers paid $37 billion more than was “necessary” between 2006-2014 and forecasting $132 billion in excess billings through to 2032. Recently, she noted that Ontario’s cap and trade deal with Quebec and California would cost Ontario’s economy $466 million over three years. Lysk also revealed that Ontario’s government understated its 2016-17 budget by $1.444 billion and its net debt by $12.429 billion (a pension issue), while advising of her intent to review (ahead of the next provincial election) a 25% unfunded electricity bill reduction.

Contrast Lysk’s fearless performance with Manitoba’s Auditor General. While he has the scope to perform value for money audits, the results of major government policy actions are rarely publicly analyzed. Manitoba’s Auditor General operates more like an internal auditor, unlike Lysk’s aggressive stance.

Politicians prefer to have control over regulatory bodies supposedly independent and quasi-judicial. Accordingly, Manitoba regulatory bodies have restricted mandates reducing their independence and potential effectiveness. With few exceptions, appointments are made without external advertised competitions or true all-party involvement.

Consider just some of the outcomes of questionable decisions taken by Manitoba’s regulatory bodies. The Clean Environment Commission green-lighted Hydro’s massively over-budget Wuskwatim dam. PUB, in a mandate-restricted review of the $25 billion expansion, green-lighted the Keeyask dam, now expected to drive up rates as costs soar. Carol Bellringer, when Auditor General, declared a Hydro board conflict and didn’t investigate serious claims of a whistleblower concerning Hydro’s ill-fated expansion. And, Hydro’s new government-appointed board engaged Boston Consulting to review the massive expansion, over-relying on information provided by the crown corporation itself. Without speaking to knowledgeable critics, the board green-lighted continuing the financially disastrous expansion.

Ahead of elections political parties ooze ideals such as transparency and openness while pledging efficiency, acting differently once in office. Contract details relevant to taxes and rising utility bills are held secret, not revealed even in public hearings.

All quasi-judicial administrative tribunals and bodies should be populated through open competitions and all-party appointment approvals. Mandates should be loosened. Openness and transparency should reign.

The Pallister government would deserve high praise if it gave regulatory bodies true independence and practiced real openness and transparency.

— Graham Lane leads Manitoba Forward.

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