Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne said it was "unacceptable" for political staffers from her Liberal Party to erase documents, even as the opposition called for a police investigation into the matter.
The practice was revealed in a report by the province's Information and Privacy Commissioner. It found that one staffer involved in the costly cancellation of two gas-fired power plants had deleted all of his e-mails, potentially obliterating information on the controversial subject.
The commissioner also discovered that David Livingston, chief of staff to former premier Dalton McGuinty, asked the head of the civil service earlier this year for advice on permanently deleting electronic records.
"It was unacceptable behaviour, and it certainly would be unacceptable behaviour at any point for any chief of staff," Ms. Wynne said Thursday in her first news conference since the report. "It's the kind of behaviour I certainly won't accept and we're not going to countenance."
Since she took office, Ms. Wynne said, staffers have been trained to preserve e-mails and other records. She said she agrees with the commissioner's findings and will look at how to improve transparency. Current laws, for instance, forbid the government from destroying documents but do not set out any consequences for people who disobey. But the Progressive Conservatives said the Liberals cannot be trusted to police themselves and that the provincial police should open a case. On Thursday, they sent OPP Commissioner Chris Lewis a letter asking his force to get involved.
Tory energy critic Vic Fedeli said the e-mails are public property and getting rid of them was a crime. "They stole that material from the taxpayers and from the government and they should be charged with theft," he said.
The Tories are also considering whether to recommend that staffers or politicians be held in contempt of Parliament. If that goes forward, the legislature could choose to punish them.
They also called for the NDP to help bring the government down next week during the final vote on the budget.
But the New Democrats, who have already struck a deal with the Liberals to support the budget in exchange for having several of their policies adopted, made it clear that was not going to happen. For the gas-plant investigation to conclude, they argued, the election must be delayed.
"This committee was charged with looking at who refused to give documents and what happened," said NDP House Leader Gilles Bisson. "The only way to get to the bottom of this is for the committee to do its work. If there's an election, that would mean everything would die, everything would fall to the wayside and that would mean the government would essentially evade what happens when the committee's report comes out."
The Liberals pulled the plug on the plants, in the Toronto suburbs of Mississauga and Oakville, in what was seen as a political move to save their candidates from defeat in the 2011 election. Earlier this year, it emerged that the price tag was $585-million – much higher than the Liberals had said. The discrepancy between the numbers, and the fact that Liberal staffers erased documents, has prompted opposition parties to charge that the government tried to hide its actions.
Had the Tories won the 2011 election, they also would have cancelled the power plants. But, they said, they would have been upfront about it.
"This is about the cover-up. We asked a very simple question: How much do these cancellations cost? We asked that over a year ago and it was a lack of answer to that very basic question that has led to where we are today," said PC MPP Rob Leone. "If we were in government, money would have been spent for sure, but at the end of the day, we would have been honest about how much these things cost, and we would have been open and transparent with the people of Ontario."