Taxpayers have good reason to be frustrated with Premier Doug Ford’s handing of Ontario’s finances.
The auditor general’s recent report shows just how cavalier the Ontario government has been in writing cheques from the taxpayer chequebook.
The government of Ontario’s emergency pandemic response put thousands of businesses on the brink of bankruptcy. Thousands of others were forced to shut down for good. So, the province stepped in to provide financial support.
However, the rushed nature of the government’s new aid programs risked a lack of due diligence. There was a clear danger that money would end up in the wrong places.
Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk’s recent annual report reveals massive waste.
Lysyk revealed two major problems with the government’s pandemic aid for businesses.
First, the Ford government gave $210 million to businesses that were ineligible to receive pandemic funds.
Second, the Ford government overcompensated some businesses to the tune of $714 million.
That means thousands of businesses across the province received more in pandemic aid than they would have made if COVID-19 had never hit our shores.
This wasn’t just a problem in the early days of the rollout of pandemic aid in early 2020. These big-spending programs went on for nearly two years.
According to Lysyk, the government never corrected course.
“We concluded that, on the whole, the ministries did not design effective and efficient systems and procedures to deliver cost-effective programs to only eligible recipients,” said Lysyk in her report.
Even more damning is that the government still doesn’t know whether pandemic aid went to the right businesses, or whether the support programs were even effective.
Lysyk stated the government “did not confirm that the programs it launched were effective in helping businesses in accordance with the defined objectives because it did not establish outcome-based measures for those programs.”
That’s like trying to cook a delicious holiday meal without using a recipe or tasting it before serving it the in-laws.
The government still does not know if pandemic aid programs have been effective nearly two years later.
Every taxpayer dollar that goes to the wrong place will be put on our children and grandchildren’s massive government debt credit card tab.
If support programs were ineffective, or money was going to the wrong places, the government abdicated responsibility by failing to meaningfully evaluate its ongoing pandemic response.
The Ford government was not alone. Auditors general across the country will likely issue similar reports.
But Ford came into office in 2018 promising Ontarians that he would carefully watch every penny of taxpayer money and ensure that money would be spent wisely.
His reputation is on the line.
To correct course, the government needs to immediately review ongoing pandemic programs to ensure that Ontario taxpayers are getting value for money.
Lysyk recommends the Treasury Board Secretariat retrace the government’s steps and account for all of its pandemic spending to get a better sense of where the money went and whether it was effective.
In addition, the government should launch an internal inquiry into exactly what went wrong with the government’s pandemic response to make sure Ontario is ready to confront future crises.
Even before the pandemic reached Ontario, Ford’s standing as a champion for taxpayers was on shaky ground. The government’s lack of due diligence in its pandemic response is another blow. Now Ford needs to get the province’s spending under control.
Jay Goldberg is the Ontario Director at the Canadian Taxpayers Federation