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 its most sensitive issues.
The 800-plus page report contained criticisms of the government’s plan to move the Ontario Science Centre to Ontario Place, its stewardship of the environment, the staffing crisis in health care, and how partisanship has been infused in taxpayer-funded government advertising.
When Stavropoulos delivered the report at Queen’s Park in the morning he told reporters he was hoping to learn if he’d lose “acting” from his title, which would put in him the role for a decade.
Hours later, MPPs agreed to appoint Shelley Spence, who's worked as an account and auditor for thirty years and was selected by a bipartisan committee.
The government then moved to adjourn the chamber’s business until the New Year, a move that was cast by opposition parties as an attempt by Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives as an attempt to flee from accountability for the tumultuous fall sitting that was capped by revelations in the auditor’s report.
Treasury Board President Caroline Mulroney thanked the acting auditor for his report.
“Every year our government is pleased to be part of this important exercise and accountability so that the people of Ontario know how their tax dollars are being spent,” Mulroney said.
The opposition parties seemed thankful for the report as well.
NDP Leader Marit Stiles said the report confirms what she’s been saying all along: “The Conservatives have spent a whole year unilaterally ramming through unpopular policies with complete disregard for how their bad planning was impacting regular people. They've wasted Ontarians’ time and they've wasted their tax dollars too.”
Ontario Liberal Leader Bonnie Crombie wasn’t at Queen’s Park, but said on X that the report “reaffirms just how incompetent and out of touch this failed Conservative government really is.”
And Green leader Mike Schriner said it “clearly shows that the Ford government doesn't really give a damn about what ordinary Ontarians think about, doesn't ask them, doesn't listen to them.”
Paving paradise at Ontario Place
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.
Hundreds of new nearby parking spots must be comped by provincial taxpayers to accommodate leases signed by spa-builder Therme and amphitheatre-operator Live Nation at Ontario Place, the auditor’s report revealed.
If new parking isn’t built between 2028 and 2030, taxpayers will be footing an unspecified bill as a penalty.
Infrastructure Minister Kinga Surma, the Ford government’s lead on the Ontario Place redevelopment project, said after the report’s release that “these penalties are meant to make sure that we keep on track with our timelines.”
Although exact details for a new Ontario Place parking facility — previously planned to be built underground at the manmade waterfront site — are still being negotiated, the auditor’s report also revealed the provincial government is contractually obligated to meet certain requirements for Therme’s and Live Nation’s sake.
Last week, the Ford government agreed through its “new deal for Toronto” with Mayor Olivia Chow to build new parking at Exhibition Place, the mainland area across from Ontario Place.
The auditor’s report also poked holes in the business case for the Ontario Science Centre’s move that Infrastructure Ontario released earlier in the week and the government has used as justification for the facility’s move. That business case lacked key considerations, Stavropoulos’ report determined, including proper consultations.
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.
Health Minister Sylvia Jones defended her government, citing the efforts it has undertaken to increase health-care workforce through immigration and training and her overall budget of over $80-billion.
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, with the auditor general finding that those who dip big cities to get their licence elsewhere get in more frequent collisions than those who are tested on the urban streets where they live.
Orangeville has been a popular destination for Brampton residents, with them accounting for 42 per cent of all drivers tested at the town’s test centre over a recent 15-month period the auditor’s office looked at. Just two per cent of Orangeville DriveTest Centre testees lived in the town.
In another example from the same reviewed period that began in January 2022, 1,000 new drivers travelled five hours from the Greater Toronto Area to Hawkesbury in the lower Ottawa Valley to take a driver’s test.
Serco, the company the Ministry of Transportation supervises to administer driver’s test, and its parent company Plenary, were described as “ineffective” by the auditor general.