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Four ways Ontario Liberal bill tries to open up government to public scrutiny

No matter how she rolled it out, there were always going to be political undertones to Kathleen Wynne's push for transparency in Ontario. And how could there not be? After spending a year dealing with the fallout from the gas plant scandal that tarnished the final days of Dalton McGuinty's government, the Premier's plan was calculated to show she's serious about doing things differently.

But the Accountability Act itself, whatever the politics that created it, is a hefty piece of legislation that proposes some major changes to the way the provincial government is run.

Some measures are no-brainers: posting politicians' expenses and voting records online is a simple step that numerous other governments, including Toronto city council, have been doing for years. Others are controversial, such as allowing the province's ombudsman, Andre Marin, to investigate municipal governments. And some – creating a new health care ombudsman who reports to bureaucrats – are already being criticized as not going far enough.

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Mandarins and big money

The Act will give cabinet more control over the salaries and bonuses of top civil servants, including the power to cap them.

The New Democrats have long called for such a cap. An auditor’s report last year, meanwhile, found that Ontario Power Generation had hired more executives and paid them big bonuses when it was downsizing among its rank and file.

Reining in executive pay is not going to save much money in the greater scheme of things – think tens of millions out of a $130-billion annual budget – but it is highly symbolic. At a time of belt-tightening in every department, the government wants to ensure it can keep the highest-powered civil servants at publicly-acceptable levels of pay.

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My dinner with Andre

Mr. Marin has long sought to have his mandate expanded, arguing the government shields too many public sector agencies from his oversight. The province is finally capitulating in part, allowing him to investigate complaints about municipalities, universities and schools.

The Association of Municipalities of Ontario slammed the province, arguing Ms. Wynne is trying to “micromanage” their members by giving the ombudsman – who has a reputation for writing highly critical reports that attract a barrage of media attention and embarrass the government – the power to investigate them.

Fiona Crean, Toronto’s ombudsman, contends her city should be exempt from Mr. Marin’s oversight because it already has an ombudsman of its own. Under the government’s plan, Mr. Marin will have the right to review Ms. Crean’s decisions.

“No provincial ombudsman will ever look at this level of detail at a municipal level,” she said in an interview. “The bottom line is: it’s confusing, it’s duplication.”

Mr. Marin dismissed the cities’ concerns as “squawking.”

“Once they catch their breath, they will realize this is good medicine,” he said in a conference call with reporters.

In Toronto’s case, Mr. Marin said, Ms. Crean will still be the first stop for complainants. He suggested she will handle most of the daily files and detail work, while he will focus on larger investigations. He also said that he will have powers Ms. Crean lacks, such as the ability to investigate city councillors and the mayors.

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Ombudsman-lite for the health-care sector

One area of responsibility the province did not give Mr. Marin is health care. Instead, it will appoint a new “patient ombudsman” to handle complaints about hospitals, long-term care homes and community health centres.

The patient ombudsman will not be an independent watchdog like Mr. Marin, who reports directly to the legislature. Instead, the new officer will be part of a government agency and report to civil servants.

Mr. Marin called this arrangement “unfortunate,” but suggested only time will tell if it’s effective.

The government is promising, at least, to allow the patient ombudsman the same powers as Mr. Marin.

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Voting records and expense claims

All MPPs will be required to post their expenses online – something that’s currently only mandatory for the Premier and cabinet.

This move touched off a bizarre round of “my leader is more transparent than your leader” between the Liberals and the Progressive Conservatives Thursday. The Tories accused the Grits of not providing enough detail about Ms. Wynne’s expenses. The Liberals countered by pointing out that PC Leader Tim Hudak, who posts his expenses voluntarily, hasn’t updated them since June.

The government is also hoping to post the expenses of appointees and senior executives at government agencies, a move that responds both to the concern over OPG and to an expenses scandal at the agency organizing the 2015 Pan Am Games. In that case, an access to information request by the Toronto Sun revealed executives were dinging taxpayers for such things as tea and parking.

The government is also looking to make it easier to find voting and attendance records for MPPs. Such things are publicly available – checking Hansard will show you how each MPP voted on a particular bill – but the government wants to organize it better to allow the records to be searched by MPPs’ names. This can be done without legislation, through an agreement between the Liberals, Progressive Conservatives and New Democrats.

Adrian Morrow is The Globe's Ontario politics reporter.

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