Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Power Plant Politics

It’s hard almost not to feel sorry for Chris Bentley (OLP – London West). Mr. Bentley is the Minister of Energy here in the province of Ontario and he is under incredible scrutiny of late. Mr. Bentley is in trouble because the Liberal government under Dalton McGuinty (OLP – Ottawa South) scrapped plans for two gas power plants in Oakville and Mississauga. The plants were unpopular in both communities and despite awarding contracts and construction being underway they were cancelled.

Fair enough, but there are two hiccups. The plants were incredibly expensive to close. The Oakville project cost the Ontario government $40 million to terminate. That amount seems paltry in comparison to the Mississauga plant, which has cost the taxpayer $190 million. It gets worse though. The Mississauga plant was cancelled at the end of the last election campaign. Observers have explained the cancellation as a crass effort by the McGuinty Liberals to win seats in Mississauga in the desperate last days of the campaign.

Skip forward a year to the present. The opposition parties have been pressing the government to produce documents related to this plant cancellation. Minister Bentley denied access to the documents which enraged the opposition and elements of the media. The Ontario Legislature has supremacy when dealing with the finances of the province and ministers must produce documents related to finance when asked (demanded).

Bentley was eventually forced to produce the documents, though the ONDP and PCs claim that key portions are redacted. To politically punish the McGuinty government and Bentley for resisting parliamentary privilege the PCs have introduced a censure motion against Mr. Bentley.

The censure is not finalized, but seems highly likely. The punishments against Mr. Bentley could be quite severe. He could be removed from the Legislature, disbarred from the Law Society of Upper Canada, or even jailed. It is unlikely a cabinet minister will go to jail, but it is hard to imagine Chris Bentley could remain Energy Minister if the censure passes the Legislature.

The cancellation of the plants plainly stinks. $240 million of taxpayers’ money was thrown away. The gas plants are badly needed to meet energy demand, and it is cheapest to build the plants where people live, like in the ever-growing Peel, or Halton. More worrying is that the closure of the Mississauga plant may have been directed by the Liberal campaign and not the government. Ultimately the Liberals and the Ontario government are both headed by Premier Dalton McGuinty, but the blurring of these lines is discomforting thought. Campaign managers should not be directing major public projects for the sake of electoral outcomes. Energy experts will tell you the cancellation of those plants was a foolish move and will simply be relocated.

Sadly for Mr. Bentley none of this, really, was his fault to begin with. He was not the Energy Minister during that campaign; it was Brad Duguid (OLP – Scarborough Centre) who held the portfolio. If you are feeling extra cynical (and I am) one could argue that Duguid, who is seen by many as a future leader of the party, was moved out so that the heat for this political mess wouldn’t tarnish him too badly. So, it’s Bentley falling on Duguid and McGuinty’s sword.

Worse still, Eric Grenier did some number crunching andconcluded that the gas plant closures did not really save the Mississauga seats for the Liberals. The OLP would have won the Mississauga ridings regardless of whether or not the plants remained in place.

As I said, it is hard to not feel a little sorry for Minister Bentley. I hope that he would resign as Minister, which may be enough to forestall the censure vote against him. Perhaps not though, the PCs smell blood in the water on this one. I watched some of the Question Period in the Legislature this week, and I must say, it is a pretty toxic environment these days. I think it would be fair to say it is worse than the House of Commons. In last week’s Worth Reading I shared an article stating that the Legislature is on borrowed time before it falls. I’m not sure an election is imminent, but if one is called it will be a brutal campaign, and I doubt the Liberals could squeak out another win.

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