TORONTO — Progressive Conservative MPPs will strip even more powers from Ontario's environmental commissioner than first announced, and have laid the groundwork to cut the office's employees.
The PCs announced that the commissioner's office would be absorbed by the auditor general in their November Fall Economic Statement.
Amendments filed by a PC-controlled government committee, posted publicly on Wednesday, make significant changes to the bill. The revised version passed the legislative assembly in a vote on Thursday, just before Queen's Park adjourned for the holidays.
The original bill said that the commissioner's 28 employees would be transferred to the auditor general's office. Now, the amendments state that only staffers "who are offered" employment will have jobs — and those who are transferred will lose their collective bargaining rights.
The PC amendments also loosen the rules on what environmental work the auditor general will be required to do.
Under the original bill, her office was required to write about greenhouse gas emissions and energy conservation in its annual report. The amended bill now says that she "may" report on those issues if she chooses to.
'They want less reporting'
When the change was first announced, Finance Minister Vic Fedeli insisted that the changes would save money without costing any public service jobs. He refused to explain to reporters exactly how that would be possible.
"They want less reporting. They want less accountability," said Ian Arthur, an NDP member of the Standing Committee on Finance and Economic Affairs, where the amendments were approved.
"I suspect that it will be an office in name only. It will be a desk somewhere."
Arthur said the government wants to avoid being accountable for the environmental impacts of its decisions. The new PC climate plan only requires review every four years.
"They're giving themselves a horizon beyond the next election to have to even report if they're making any progress on environmental issues in Ontario," he told HuffPost Canada on Thursday.
A spokesman for the minister of finance declined to comment, and a representative for the minister of the environment did not respond to HuffPost Canada's questions before publication.
There is one improvement in the bill's amendments, according to the executive director of the Canadian Environmental Law Association.
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The bill has been changed so that the auditor can appoint anyone as the environmental commissioner, rather than selecting one from her existing employees. So, current commissioner Dianne Saxe could get the job, Theresa McClenaghan told HuffPost.
However, the amendments fail to solve what she sees as the bill's main issue — the commissioner is no longer an independent officer of the legislature.
As a non-partisan officer, Saxe reported directly to the legislature, rather than to the governing party. Her office produced lengthy reports on climate change, environmental protection and energy conservation every year.
We're going to get farther and farther from where we need to be, just as climate change begins to really punish the people of Ontario.Dianne Saxe
Saxe criticized the PC government for cancelling the Liberal's pollution pricing program in September.
"We're going to get farther and farther from where we need to be, just as climate change begins to really punish the people of Ontario," Saxe said at the time.
At committee on Monday, McClenaghan's colleague Richard Lindgren told the government it should remove the entire section of the bill that merges Saxe's office with the auditor.
The abolition of the commissioner is an "unjustified rollback" that will result in "far less oversight, far less transparency, far less environmental accountability in Ontario," the lawyer said.
Saxe has received little information about the changes to her office. A spokesman for her office did not respond to HuffPost Canada's request for comment Thursday.
But in an interview last week, Saxe likened the merger with the auditor general to an arranged marriage.
"No one will tell us when the wedding is," she said.
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