|Ontario's legislature sits empty. (QMI AGENCY PHOTO)
TORONTO - The decision to prorogue the Ontario legislature has opened the door for the government to make appointments to more than 600 agencies, boards and commissions, unfettered by committee or opposition oversight.
"The problem with this is that there is no opportunity for the opposition or the public to oversee the appointments that are being made," NDP house leader Gilles Bisson said.
With the house prorogued, legislative committees also cease to operate, including the standing committee on government agencies. When that committee is working, Bisson said, members get notices every week on who is being suggested for appointment to everything from the board of Ontario Power Generation and Hydro One to local police service boards and regional health networks.
"We no longer get that, so the government just appoints," Bisson said.
"I can appoint my neighbour, my friend, my campaign manager -- whoever the heck it is I want -- and there's no public scrutiny. This is open, quite frankly, to patronage. Literally, there are hundreds of appointments at any given time."
The government agencies committee is just one of nine committees now shut down because of prorogation -- which Premier Dalton McGuinty announced Oct. 15, along with his resignation pending the election of a new Liberal leader.
The move wiped out two contempt of parliament motions hanging over the government and committee investigations into the relocation of two power plants and the Ornge air ambulance services, although all can potentially come back in some form at a later date.
When that happens it is in the hands of whoever is chosen at the Grits' late January leadership convention -- leading critics to charge McGuinty has put his party's interests ahead of those of the province.
The premier denied that, insisting he prorogued the house because of opposition intransigence. McGuinty complained an overheated atmosphere was causing the legislature to seize up.
Taking a pause, he argued, would allow the government to pursue its goal of a public sector wage freeze through direct talks with unions, or failing that, the Tories, who have not ruled out aligning with the government on wage-freezing legislation.
As it stands, there are no confirmed talks between the government and the Progressive Conservatives, and unions have flatly rejected McGuinty's overture.
But Bisson said the effect on appointments is just one other example of the serious impact closing down the house.
A government official said the appointments process routinely makes do without committee oversight and noted all appointments are posted publicly.
"It's business as usual when it comes to public appointments," John Friesen, a spokesman for the ministry of government services, said in an e-mail.
"The government is continuing to make public appointments so that agencies, boards and commissions continue to function effectively -- we'll continue to do so in a fair, transparent and accessible manner."
The Liberals have cleaned up the appointment process since first being elected in 2003, Friesen said, instituting a system where people need to apply for nomination and undergo background checks and panel interviews.
"All public appointments will continue to be posted on the Public Appointments Secretariat's website, and all prospective appointments go through a formal application process and are closely reviewed by the government. In fact, most appointments require cabinet approval," he said.
The prorogation period is no different than when the house has risen over summer or during an election, officials said, with appointments restricted to a year or less and still posted publicly.
But the opposition -- which, because of the minority situation at Queen's Park, has a control of the committees when they do sit -- has lost the chance to question nominees, Progressive Conservative house leader Jim Wilson said.
"There was a huge backlog to interview appointees that the government was recommending," he said. "That, of course, is all shut down."
Also lost, Wilson said, is the chance for the finance committee to help shape the next budget through public consultation. It's the second year in a row that will happen, as the government's five-month delay in striking committees after the 2011 election wiped out that round of pre-budget hearings.
"The most important season (for the finance committee) is the pre-budget season and that is totally obliterated," Wilson said.
"There's no formal way to receive submissions from the public. It's two years in a row -- they just don't want to hear from Ontarians."
The initial delay in getting committees going is easy to understand -- with committee membership divvied up according to house standings, the combined opposition parties would hold the majority. The government naturally feared where that might lead but Wilson said the committees have done their job.
"They'd become, under the first eight years of Dalton McGuinty, a rubber stamp," he said.
"Although at times it may appear that the opposition was being obstructionist in terms of trying to make minority government work. But on the other hand, there was a lot of good work being done in those committees that are now shut down. I think they were the most effective they have been in over a decade. It's where the real work is done."
Bisson said in his view, the Liberal unease with committees is all about their unwillingness to deal with the minority status voters handed them in October 2011.
"It was pretty clear by the end of the summer that the government did not want to have a discussion about how you're going to make this legislature work this fall," he said.
"They wanted to play the Stephen Harper card. They wanted to show that this place is dysfunctional so they could say during the byelection (in Kitchener-Waterloo) - this place doesn't work, give me my majority."