The auditor general’s report has done more than churn up troubling stuff. It has in a sense taken the pulse of our politics after some 20 years of malfunction and seven months after the NDP was swept into office to raise the place to a higher standard. On the AG’s evidence, we have some way to go before we reach higher ground.
Jacques Lapointe hit three main subjects: MLA expenses, P3 schools and a third one that wasn’t flagged in the news reports — an electronic health records system about to come onstream, but without a strategy and with loose ends that could bung up and be costly, says the auditor general.
The theme is roughly the same in all three cases, but certainly in the first two: Things are not quite under control, and the question that jumps to the fore is “What now?”
The especially vexing thing about the MLA expenses is that Premier Darrell Dexter and, so far, a couple of ministers have emerged with items on the “inappropriate or excessive” list.
This certainly jarred me, and no doubt induced a sinking feeling among NDP stalwarts who, after decades of battle against waste of public funds, would have expected vigilant frugality among top New Democrats. This is the party, after all, whose main (and largely successful) fight on the way up was against the wasteful patronage in our politics.
True, there are attenuating circumstances. It’s the “system” that’s at fault — there isn’t one, but that’s the rub. Things may get done without conscious intent. Without rules, maybe the secretary orders the printers and cameras and OKs the questionable payments on the understanding that that’s how everybody else does it. The public, quite rightly, doesn’t see the difference.
Luckily for the government, it had at least been at work trying to fix the system before this broke, with some perks shaved back, as the AG points out. Former Conservative Speaker of the legislature Art Donahoe was hired to investigate how. Donahoe, an old boy among MLAs, was a questionable choice, but with this report in his lap, and the government having accepted all its recommendations, he’ll be under pressure to deliver.
The good news is that this bust-up, and a steamed public to go with it, hopefully signals the end of the problem. A fix is imminent, but not without proper embarrassment.
If anything, the P3 stuff is even more infuriating. The AG speaks of “irresponsible practices and questionable expenditures” with regard to the management of these schools, of which there are 39, and which he says could cost the taxpayer an extra $50 million-plus over the 20-year term of these contracts.
I suspect it’s only his professional reserve that keeps him from using the word “scam.”
Apart from contractual obligations not met, inadequate oversight and other flaws, there’s this: In a number of cases, developers subcontracted school maintenance back to school boards.
What this means is that the public sector can do the job more cheaply than the private sector, negating the whole P3 principle, which was the real scam.
Corporate-funded think tanks — ours is the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies — promoted privatization as the answer to everything to vulnerable governments worldwide. Ours was led by John Savage — beset by federal cuts, in fiscal distress and grasping at straws, Savage took the bait.
The NDP opposed P3s, but are now stuck with the result. The NDP should play hardball, as per the AG’s 21 recommendations, which also include advice on preparing for the end of these contracts less than 10 years from now so the taxpayer doesn’t get burned again.
Oddly, despite the NDP’s original opposition, the government’s official response is that the AG misunderstood the original contracts — which didn’t separate capital and operating expenses, but lumped everything under “operating.”
The idea was that there would be repairs, such as new roofs, and that in the end it would all come out in the wash — not a methodology the AG appreciates.
They did say roofs. Roofs, unless they’re scams, last at least 20 years. In other words, when the taxpayer comes to buy back these buildings, or lease them again, let’s make sure we’re not paying twice for roofs too.
As for the health records, a provincial system is due to come on in March, but will still not cover many aspects of health information. Sub-systems and components are being constructed separately, to be connected later, but the AG worries that without a clear strategy, the bits are being added piecemeal and may not be compatible with the main system.
The idea is to head off problems now and avoid costly fixes later.
Ditto with government generally. We may be getting closer to a fixing mood, but the AG’s bigger message is that we’re not there yet.