11/30/2018 10:46 EST | Updated 11/30/2018 10:47 EST

Silencing Government Watchdogs Has Real Consequences For Ontario

Democracy is stronger with independent bodies able to report on the government's actions with an eye beyond partisan political games.

The new government released their first fall economic statement earlier this month. It gives us a sense of their approach to democracy. And it's not looking good.

There is a lot in the bill, but it's the elimination of the environmental commissioner, child advocate and French language services commissioner, combined with moves to undermine the independence of the remaining legislative officers, that have me most worried.

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Ontario's Finance Minister Vic Fedeli delivered the Progressive Conservatives' fall economic statement earlier this month.

These moves remove the checks and balances that hold government accountable and provide oversight for the people. It is a threat to our democratic traditions and will have immediate and long-term negative consequences.

Last week I asked the integrity commissioner to investigate the premier's chief of staff after news reports emerged alleging that he had potentially abused his power by interfering in hiring decisions at Ontario Power Generation and ordering staff to tell police to raid cannabis dispensaries for politically motivated photo-ops.

Now just imagine the premier having the power to suspend the integrity commissioner with a majority vote if he doesn't like the investigation.

This is dangerous, and it is wrong.

The premier's office and party leaders already have too much power. Bill 57 will give them even more.

That is why I'm calling on all MPPs from all parties to amend Bill 57 to remove these changes. The premier's office and party leaders already have too much power. Bill 57 will give them even more.

Let's be honest: this is not a cost-saving move. This is a power grab. And I will work hard to stop it.

Silencing government watchdogs has real-world consequences that affect your life.

For example, just days before these independent officers were put on the chopping block, the environmental commissioner issued a scathing report revealing that the previous government had allowed raw sewage to be dumped into our rivers and lakes 1,327 times last year alone.

This is our drinking water at stake. The commissioner's report highlighted threats where we are most at risk.

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Premier Doug Ford in the Legislative Assembly as Queen's Park.

Likewise, Ontario's child advocate has shed light on abuses in the child welfare system and inadequacies of youth mental health services, among other abuses children face. His office has created a safe space for children to find help and to advocate for change. Eliminating the office creates even more barriers for children facing abuse to find help and get action.

Similarly, Ontario's French language services commissioner protects the rights of the Francophone community. The office takes government to task when public services are not available in French for Ontario's French-speaking minority. While the Ontario government has since walked back some of the changes in the wake of widespread backlash, Ford is still removing the French language services commissioner as a stand-alone, independent office.

This is why I am so worried about moves that reduce oversight and transparency.

Our democracy is stronger with independent bodies able to report on the government's actions with an eye beyond short-term political thinking or partisan political games.

It's a worrying indication of things to come.

That is what the independent officers of the legislature do for us. They put the facts on the table so MPPs and citizens can make informed decisions based on evidence. Whether it's the auditor general, the child advocate or the environmental commissioner, they cut through the political spin, monitor the government's performance and hold it accountable.

In a way, independent officers also signal the things we value as Ontarians, independently of the party in power. Until now, that has included a clean environment, the protection of children and Francophone services. Collapsing and compromising the independence of these officers tells us that the Ford government values them less.

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It's a worrying indication of things to come. If there are plans to roll back protections for vulnerable children, French language services or the environment, we will depend on whistleblowers to expose the true impact of these decisions.

Underneath all the talk about getting Ontario's finances in order is a plan that reduces the checks and balances on the government's power.

And you can bet I'll be fighting this erosion of democracy, accountability and oversight at Queen's Park.

A version of this blog originally appeared in the Guelph Mercury Tribune.

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