TORONTO - Premier Dalton McGuinty was on the defensive Monday even before the first question period of the fall legislative session, moving to blunt opposition attacks by announcing clearer expense rules for provincial agencies, boards and commissions.
Under attack after months of reports about unacceptable expense claims at eHealth Ontario, Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. and other arm's-length agencies, the Liberal government boiled 25 pages of rules down to just two.
"The steps our government is taking today will make it easier for everyone to know the rules and harder for anyone to break the rules." McGuinty said.
"Just to be clear, we're not changing the rules. We're just removing as any potential excuse that 'we didn't understand the rules."'
The rule changes, which take effect next April, will apply to all 65,000 Ontario civil servants, and the 80,000 people who work at arm's-length agencies, boards and commissions, said McGuinty.
There will also be mandatory, computer-based training on expense rules for all 80,000 direct provincial employees and workers at the 22 largest arm's-length agencies.
The opposition parties said clarifying the rules can't hurt, but they again demanded Health Minister David Caplan's resignation because of expense abuses and $16 million in untendered contracts awarded by eHealth Ontario.
They've also been pushing for a cabinet minister to walk the plank over a similar problem with expense abuses at OLG, which saw the government fire the corporation's CEO, Kelly McDougald.
The firing raised eyebrows because it came after the government paid Sara Kramer, the heavily-criticized CEO of eHealth Ontario, $315,000 to leave her post in the midst of the scandal that rocked her agency.
McDougald announced Friday that she was launching a wrongful dismissal suit against the Ontario government that one source said asked for between $8 million and $9 million in damages.
The Progressive Conservatives and New Democrats had been waiting all summer for Monday's resumption of the legislature to pounce on the government for the reports of expense abuses and irregular contracts that emerged during the summer break.
The opposition parties released a joint letter Monday to the Speaker Steve Peters accusing both McGuinty and Caplan of misleading the legislature by repeatedly promising an outside review of eHealth by PriceWaterhouseCoopers, which was quietly dropped in the summer.
The reports of expense abuses at eHealth, OLG and other agencies that spilled out since the legislature adjourned in June turned it into the "summer of scandals," said Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak.
"Premier, this has to do with your work, your honesty, what you told members of this legislative assembly and what the facts were," Hudak said in his first official question as leader of the Opposition.
"For weeks we saw you and your health minister dodge, duck and dismiss opposition questions about the eHealth scandal, and you yourself said you retained PriceWaterhouseCoopers to investigate."
McGuinty didn't deny telling the legislature the government had hired PWC to conduct an independent, third-party review of the expense abuses and consulting contracts awarded by eHealth, but insisted it was an honest mistake on his part.
"It was certainly my understanding that PWC had been retained," said McGuinty.
"There is no nefarious plot as my friend might intimate."
The New Democrats too went on the attack over expenses and untendered contracts at provincial agencies during question period, and complained the Liberals used their majority to block a legislative committee from investigating eHealth.
"Ontarians want to know all of the facts, but instead they see Liberal members shut down committee investigations and ministers saying third-party auditors are looking at the eHealth scandal even though they haven't been hired," said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.
"Why is it that everyone is held accountable for this mess but the premier and his cabinet?"