GPO written submission commenting on omnibus budget Bill 55

The Standing Committee on Finance and Economic Affairs
Room 1405, Whitney Block,
Queen’s Park, Toronto, ON M7A 1A2

Dear Committee Members:

The Green Party of Ontario is deeply concerned that the government’s use of omnibus legislation such as Bill 55 weakens democracy and public participation, and undermines transparency and accountability.  This moves Ontario in the wrong direction.

Bill 55 proposes changes to 69 acts.  Although some of these proposals are housekeeping changes, there are proposals in Bill 55 that deserve broader public consultation and accountability.  Of particular concern to the GPO are proposals that undermine environmental protections and Ombudsman oversight of government service administration and delivery.

Environmental Protections

Bill 55 proposes changes to 11 environmental (or related) laws, including eight environmentally significant laws affecting the Ministry of Natural Resources ability to protect our natural heritage.  These laws are prescribed under the Environmental Bill of Rights and include: the Endangered Species Act, the Provincial Parks and Conservation Reserves Act, the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act, the Public Lands Act, the Crown Forest Sustainability Act, the Lakes and Rivers Improvement Act, the Ontario Forest Tenure Modernization Act, and the Niagara Escarpment Planning and Development Act.

The GPO believes it is wrong to bury significant changes to environmental protections in a 327-page budget bill.  As you know, laws prescribed under the Environmental Bill of Rights, 1993 (EBR) are normally posted on the Environmental Registry for a minimum public comment period of 30 days.  Public comments are then considered before the government makes a final decision.  

Bill 55 completely undermines this public consultation process.  The Environmental Commissioner of Ontario has stated: “At best, using omnibus legislation to amend environmental laws complicates the EBR process. At worst, it can obstruct the public’s right to participate in environmental decision making.”

The GPO recommends that the Standing Committee on Finance and Economic Affairs remove all references to amendments to Acts administered under the Environmental Bill of Rights from Bill 55.  
 
Any revisions to these Acts should be considered separately from Bill 55.  Proposed changes should be posted on the Environmental Registry for full public comment.  Failure to do so makes a mockery of any claims to provide transparent and accountable government.  

Many people share our concerns.  In the past week, 2,622 people have signed the GPO’s petition calling on the government to remove all references to amendments to Acts administered under the Environmental Bill of Rights from Bill 55.  Attached you will find copies of the petition.

Ombudsman Oversight

Bill 55 contains numerous schedules facilitating divestment of government service administration and delivery.  These include designating delegated administrative authorities and entering into other delegation arrangements.  Although these proposed changes may be justifiable for reasons of fiscal restraint and efficient service delivery, the effort also results in the elimination of Ombudsman oversight.

Unless Bill 55 is amended, citizens will lose the right to complain to the Ombudsman for an increasing number of important government services.  This loss of oversight and accountability weakens the ability of citizens to raise concerns about unfairness, unreasonableness, even unlawfulness in the administration of public services.

The current scandal at ORNGE is the most recent reminder of the risks associated with the government’s transfer of operational control to the private sector.  Although private delivery of government services may generate financial savings and more efficient service delivery, it is in the public’s interest to ensure proper oversight and accountability.  The Ombudsman’s office is an essential place for citizens to seek protection and redress.

The GPO recommends that the Standing Committee on Finance and Economic Affairs amend Bill 55 to ensure that any delegation of service delivery or powers and duties to persons outside of the government be accompanied by Ombudsman oversight.  

Expanding Ombudsman oversight will not be a panacea that prevents all problems, controversies, and scandals associated with private service delivery.  It will, however, at least provide citizens with an office to seek the resolution of complaints and an independent review of concerns.

Misguided Spending Priorities

The GPO believes a balanced budget is essential to achieving a sustainable future for Ontario.  We are concerned, however, with what we believe are misguided spending priorities in Bill 55.  At this stage of the legislative process, we will limit ourselves to highlighting one particularly important recommendation in the Drummond Report that is missing from Bill 55.

The GPO is calling on the Standing Committee on Finance and Economic Affairs to amend Bill 55 to cancel the misleadingly named Clean Energy Benefit (CEB), which supports the wasteful consumption of electricity, clean or dirty. This would save $975 million.

The GPO believes it is poor economic, social, and environmental policy to spend money to subsidize wasteful energy consumption, while not supporting programs to help people save money by saving energy and not fully funding programs that support our most vulnerable children.  Initially, the GPO called for using some of these saving to unfreeze social assistance rates.  We applaud the government and the opposition NDP for reaching a budget deal that does not freeze social assistance rates.

We recommend using savings from the cancellation of the CEB as follows:

  • $220 million for an energy rebate program targeted to lower-income families and seniors.
  • $600 million for a job creating energy-efficiency building retrofit program to help homeowners, tenants and small businesses save money by saving energy.
  • $90 million to fund a full increase in the Ontario Child Benefit.
  • The remaining savings allocated to deficit reduction.

Conclusion

The Green Party appreciates the Standing Committee on Finance and Economic Affairs consideration of our recommendations.  You are welcome to contact our office with any questions or if you require further information.

Thank you,

Mike Schreiner
Leader