10/24/2013 09:52 EDT | Updated 12/24/2013 05:12 EST

Former finance minister says public has lost interest in gas plant hearings

TORONTO - Ontario's Liberals defeated a Progressive Conservative motion Thursday that tried to force the governing party to pay back $950 million for cancelling two gas plants to save seats in the 2011 election.

The New Democrats joined with the Conservatives to support the motion, but the Tories didn't have enough of their members in the legislature and the minority Liberals defeated the motion 27-to-26.

The Liberals said if the Tories wanted to hold political parties financially accountable for mistakes in government then they would owe taxpayers billions for selling off Highway 407 and for filling in a hole dug for a Toronto subway line.

Meanwhile, former finance minister Dwight Duncan angered the opposition parties Thursday when he told a legislative committee the cost of cancelling the gas plants — estimated as high as $1.1 billion — won't drive up hydro bills.

"The characterization that this is going to have a horrendous impact on electricity bills ... $30 million or $50 million a year on a multi-multibillion-dollar system is not going to be as evident as is implied," Duncan told the justice committee.

"At the end of the day we all regret this. There was taxpayer and ratepayer money spent that didn't have to be spent."

The opposition parties said the Liberals killed the gas plants to save seats in the 2011 election, and their decisions will absolutely push up electricity rates in Ontario.

"I think it's pretty rich for the former finance minister to somehow think that the people of this province aren't already paying for some of the energy mistakes that this government has made," said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath. "We know that those bills are going to go up higher because there's no other way to get the money."

The Progressive Conservatives accused Duncan of being out of touch with reality.

"When you have seniors on a fixed income living in a trailer park in Ottawa who won't turn on their heat or their computer during the day, you look at a government that maybe has become a little too comfortable and really has forgotten the people they are there for," said PC energy critic Lisa MacLeod. "That's what I saw today."

A feisty Duncan clashed repeatedly with opposition members of the committee as he defended the Liberals' decisions to cancel the gas plants in Oakville and Mississauga.

Duncan complained the hearings that have been going on since February aren't finding anything new, and said the public has lost interest, noting the committee had been bumped to a smaller room without full broadcast coverage.

"This is all old ground, with respect, you're not even on TV any more for goodness' sake. You got bumped from your own TV channel," he told the committee. "Ask me another question, for all 10 people who are watching it."

Duncan accused the opposition of "mischaracterizing" Premier Kathleen Wynne's role in the gas plant cancellations, saying it's not unusual for ministers to sign off on a "walk around" cabinet order without knowing all the details. A walk around is an order signed by only a handful of ministers without having a full cabinet meeting.

The government said it cancelled the gas plants after realizing it made a mistake trying to build the energy projects too close to homes and schools.

The auditor general released a report earlier this month estimating the cost of the cancellations is between $950 million and $1.1 billion, but Duncan said he doesn't think that will taint the legacy of the Liberal government.

"I don't think that this will be our legacy," he told reporters after the hearing. "I think our legacy will be the $30 billion rebuild of Ontario's power system, modernizing the way we measure our use of power. Our legacy will be the closing of coal plants."

The Liberals plan to completely end the burning of coal to generate electricity in Ontario by the end of the year, something they originally promised to do by 2007.