Randall Denley: Ford’s moves make sense — but he needs to better explain them to voters

The platform that got the Ontario PCs elected last month was a lightly connected series of simple plans, not a blueprint for governing. That wasn’t a deal-breaker for voters, but now that they are in power, the PCs are going to have to start delivering the details and big-picture context that show why their actions make sense.

Two announcements this week fell well short of that standard and subjected the Ford government to criticism it could easily have avoided.

It was no surprise the government said it was cancelling a $100-million school energy retrofit program since the money came from the cap-and-trade program Premier Doug Ford is eliminating. What the PCs should have foreseen is that the move would be portrayed as the act of a callous premier willing to let Ontario schools fall even further into disrepair.

The cancelled fund was one-time injection of money to cover such things as better lighting, energy efficiency and solar panels, not leaky roofs, but the state of Ontario’s schools is a hot topic with parents, and rightly so. Under the former Liberal government, the school repair backlog rose to $16 billion, triple what it was when they took office 15 years ago. The Toronto District School Board alone has a $4-billion fix-up list.

The Liberals had been gradually increasing repair spending and had promised to spend $1.4 billion a year, which is still low relative to the problem. The cap-and-trade money was on top of that and the Ford government is maintaining the $1.4 billion in spending this year.

It’s still a reduction in what would have been spent on schools. The PCs could have, and still can, get off this hook by promising an extra $25 million a year for four years for boards to spend on their highest priorities, not on solar panels.

That would be a smart move, because the PCs now own the school repair mess — and the perception is that they are making it worse. The well-organized lobby group Fix Our Schools has launched a social-media attack, circulating a photo of education minister Lisa Thompson proudly holding the pledge she signed to fix schools.

And yet the government is acting like media coverage and public perception are irrelevant. If that’s the lesson PCs learned from the election, it’s a bad one.

The PC communications machine (is there one?) isn’t doing any better with the plan to cancel construction of a nine-turbine wind-power plant in Prince Edward County that had already gotten the go-ahead from the Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO).

The president of plant-owner wpd Canada immediately claimed the government would be on hook for $100 million to cover the cost of the cancellation. The NDP were quick to compare the move to the Liberal gas-plant scandal.

It’s actually well within the government’s power to legislate an end to the contract, and it’s not going to cost $100 million, but no one from the government has bothered to explain how that works.

Instead, the government offered a weak technical argument: the wind farm was given a notice to proceed during the election period, and traditionally significant decisions are not made between governments. That’s true, but the deal wasn’t approved by government. The notice to proceed came from the IESO, which is not a government agency or Crown corporation.

Hydro towers are seen over a golf course in Toronto. Ontario’s new PC government is cancelling a number of wind-power energy projects.

One of the few things the Liberals got right on the green-energy file was including a provision to cancel contracts awarded in the last three phases of the green power expansion. The Ford government is going to find that mighty handy. The IESO can cancel unilaterally wind farms that have not yet begun commercial operation.

Compensation is limited to out-of-pocket expenses, up to a modest limit of just over $400,000. Compared to 20-year contracts for power we don’t need, that’s a bargain.

The Prince Edward County project began before the new cancellation rules were in place, but expect the government to offer wpd Canada compensation in line with what is in the newer contracts. Setting the compensation through legislation is one of the government’s powers. It will use it.

One can question whether cancelling a contract by legislation is fair, but one also has to note that the company started construction knowing that a change was likely in both government and approach to green energy.

The new government is going to cancel many more wind projects, and it can do so without spending a lot of money. The goal is to help contain future power costs. The first plant to be cancelled is only a small piece of a bigger plan — a point the Ford government should be emphasizing.

Randall Denley is an Ottawa political commentator and former Ontario PC candidate. Contact him at randalldenley1@gmail.com

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