TORONTO – The opposition parties accused the Ontario government of a deliberate coverup Tuesday after the Liberals used their majority to block Conservative and NDP attempts to force top brass from eHealth Ontario to appear before a legislative committee.
The Liberals on the Committee on Government Agencies out-voted the opposition parties without offering an explanation, but they obviously don’t want to deliver the accountability they’ve been promising, charged NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.
“It stinks of a coverup,” Horwath told reporters after the Committee on Government Agencies voted down the idea of forcing eHealth executives to testify.
“That’s one committee where the executives can actually be brought forward and questioned by members of the legislature,” she said.
The Progressive Conservatives said the Liberals on the committee acted “like sheep” in voting to quash the motion, and called it “a sad reflection” on the government’s priorities.
“Today was just a very bad example of how this government prefers to protect its own hide rather than the taxpayers of this province,” said PC critic Lisa MacLeod.
“I cannot understand why Premier (Dalton) McGuinty’s Liberal government would not allow members of the legislature to ask important questions about where the money went.”
The opposition parties have been complaining about eHealth since June, after it was learned the agency handed out $16 million in untendered contracts to consultants, and that some consultants who were paid $2,700 a day billed extra for snacks and beverages.
“A mammoth scandal” has emerged at eHealth and elected officials should be allowed to get to the bottom of it, said MacLeod.
“The Liberal government must be afraid of what this review might uncover . . . what else are they hiding?” she asked.
Health Minister David Caplan, who has been under fire to resign since the eHealth scandal broke, said the opposition parties could question him or the auditor general on eHealth when they appear before different legislative committees.
However, Caplan refused to say why the Liberals wouldn’t let the eHealth executives appear at the government agencies’ committee, which is seen as a watchdog body.
“The House will be opening next week, and I’m looking forward to having the opportunity to answer questions and be held accountable by my colleagues,” said Caplan.
McGuinty said Tuesday he hadn’t seen a published report about questionable consulting contracts at the Municipal Property and Assessment Corporation, and issued another appeal for people to play by the rules on expenses and tendering contracts.
“Now that you’ve raised it, it’s an opportunity to make an appeal and send a message to all those who find themselves on the public payroll, through government itself or through arm’s-length agencies, boards and commissions,” McGuinty told reporters.
“M-PAC may be a municipally funded agency, but it doesn’t matter where you’re working; if you’re on the public payroll, you have to live up to public expectations.”
The premier dismissed suggestions his government has lost control over Ontario’s 600 arm’s-length agencies, boards and commissions, and warned against tarring all public workers with the same brush.
The government has already changed the rules to prevent single-sourced contracts and to limit expenses, and has implemented tougher new rules for 21 of the largest agencies and boards, said McGuinty.
The premier also defended the decision to leave some agencies like the Ontario Securities Commission and MPAC off of the list of those included in the new rules on expenses.
“There was an effort to avoid the quasi-judicial bodies in order to allow the broader review to take place and then decide what is the best thing to do,” said McGuinty.
“We can and must use this as an opportunity to remind everybody who has the privilege of serving the public and earning a public dollar that they have to live up to public expectations, live up to the rules.”
A report by the province’s auditor general into eHealth isn’t expected until the end of the month, but the opposition parties vow to raise it once the legislature resumes sitting next week.